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South African hake continues to improve its environmental footprint

Eleven years after it first secured accreditation from the Marine Stewardship Council, South Africa’s trawl fishery for hake continues to reduce its impact on the environment.

The 51 trawler owners and operators who participate in the fishery are engaged in a ground-breaking five-year research initiative that will help them to better understand the impacts that trawling may have on the seabed. 

Industry association SADSTIA (the South African Deep Sea Trawling Industry Association) is collaborating with the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (the government department responsible for fisheries management in South Africa,) the University of Cape Town and the South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON) to repeatedly photograph and survey an area of seabed that has been closed to trawling.

“We are surveying life on the seafloor to see how the trawl lanes that have been closed to trawling will respond to the lack of disturbance,” explained Colin Attwood, associate professor at UCT.

“We would expect macro fauna to establish themselves in these lanes, but we have no idea how long that will take.”

Professor Attwood has so far led two research surveys over the trawl grounds known as ‘Karbonkel,’ situated on the continental shelf offshore of Port Nolloth on the west coast of South Africa. These grounds were sampled in 2014, prior to the start of the seabed experiment, and again in 2015 after they had been closed to trawling for a year. Annual sampling will take place for at least another two years.

Dr Johann Augustyn, secretary of SADSTIA, explains the rationale behind the experiment, “As an industry, we are concerned about our footprint,” he said, meaning the impact of fishing activities.

“In South Africa, hake trawling occurs almost entirely on soft, muddy, sandy or gravelly sediments and even though the size and weight of trawl gear is strictly regulated, we want to understand the impacts that trawling has on the ecosystem – and the time it takes for the seabed to recover after it has been trawled.”

Not only have SADSTIA’s members agreed to close part of an important trawl ground, they have also arranged for two senior fisheries technicians, with years of experience in trawling and marine electronics to participate in research surveys.

SADSTIA members learnt on 27 May 2015 that the MSC has approved a further five-year certification for the deep-sea trawl fishery. This is the third time the fishery has secured certification from the MSC: in 2004 it became the first hake fishery in the world to be judged as “sustainable and well managed.” The fishery was re-assessed and re-certified for a five-year period in 2010 and has now been re-certified after a rigorous 12-month re-assessment process during which an independent certification agency scrutinised every aspect of the fishery’s management.

“The certification is an important achievement for the trawl fishery and very good news for South Africa,” says Augustyn.

“Recent economic studies have shown that securing the health of the deep-sea fishery has prevented the loss of up to 12,000 jobs within the fishing industry and growing demand (particularly in northern Europe) for certified sustainable seafood products has resulted in the expansion of export markets worth US$197m.”

SADSTIA’s members are the trawler owners and operators that deliver hake to fish shops in every corner of South Africa; process and package fish fingers and other popular hake products for local supermarkets; and also supply a demanding international market with a range of value-added hake products.

According to Tim Reddell, chairman of SADSTIA and a director of trawler operators, Viking Fishing, having to comply with the MSC’s requirements has made trawler owners and operators more aware of the ways in which their vessels and operations interact with the environment.

“It has focused our attention on ensuring that we achieve the criteria of sustainable utilisation of the resource,” says Reddell. “Since 2004 we have steadily improved fishing practices and as a result, the fishery has recorded several major environmental achievements.”

Reddell lists the following accomplishments:

Trawl grounds have been “ring fenced” so as to prevent damage to lightly trawled areas and protect natural refuges for hake. Trawling outside the ring-fenced zone requires an environmental impact assessment.

There has been a 99% reduction in the number of albatrosses that are accidentally injured and sometimes killed by trawl gear. 

Bycatch (species other than hake that are caught in trawl nets, including kingklip and monk) is better managed than ever before. There are now strict limits on bycatch species.

South Africa’s deep-sea trawl fishery is the only fishery in Africa to have achieved accreditation from the MSC.

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