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Picture this. You sit down at your local seafood restaurant and decide to order the catch of the day – hake and chips – one of South Africa’s favourite meals. After a few minutes the waiter brings your meal and sets it on the table in front of you. It looks great and you can’t help but start eating straight away. This scenario is common to many South Africans. What’s not common, however, is finding out more about the fish before ordering.
What we should be asking is: How and where was this fish caught, who caught it and most importantly, is this fish classified as sustainable on WWF’s Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative (WWF-SASSI) list?
Many of us enjoy seafood, but we rarely think about or even find out, how the fish are caught, let alone the impacts of a particular fishing method.
The hake fishery is one of the most valuable industries in terms of its economic outputs and employment opportunities in South Africa.
Here, hake is targeted by four fisheries using different methods of fishing: the deep-sea trawl, the inshore trawl, the hake longline and the handline.
The deep-sea trawl fishery is by far the biggest of all, catching approximately 84% of hake in our waters. It is also the main method of fishing.
While out at sea a large net is towed behind the vessel. The mouth of the net is held open by two large doors attached to either side of the net. Once the net is filled it is hauled back on board, where it is emptied, and the catch is processed and stored.
However, where there is fishing, there is bycatch (fish that are caught unintentionally), and the deep-sea fishery is no exception, catching not only hake but also other species like kingklip, monkfish, dory and jacopever. Bycatch affects the species caught and the entire ocean ecosystem, leading to reduced diversity, productivity and overall ecosystem function.
Despite ongoing efforts to reduce bycatch within our fisheries, through the use of fishing regulations and gear restrictions, monitoring bycatch is still a challenge. This is where independent fishery observers come in. They monitor the catch on our fishing vessels, including bycatch.
But, due to a lack of resources, they aren’t guaranteed to be on board in every vessel for every fishing trip. In other words, we can’t monitor everything and there are gaps in what we should know.
This limited data can affect both the quality and accuracy of our assessments, and in the end lead to poor management decisions within the fishing sector.
So how can we combat this? How do we better monitor our marine resources to ensure sustainability for generations to come? This is the problem that my Master’s research explores.
Doing research on bycatch was not something I decided to do overnight. During my Honours degree in 2017 I chose to study a fish species called panga (Pterogymnus laniarius). In the 1970’s this species was heavily exploited by both foreign and local vessels, until the implementation of South Africa’s Exclusive Economic Zone (a coastal area to which a particular country claims exclusive rights regarding the use and exploration of marine resources), and a change in targeting practices occurred, leading to a reduction in the overall catch of panga in our waters, where this species only occurs.
My project aimed to find out if the panga ever recovered from the overexploitation it experienced during this period. You would be happy to know that after conducting a basic stock assessment of the species, I concluded that its population had in fact bounced back.
During this study I was exposed to the true level of bycatch in our fisheries, learning that amongst many other species panga was one of the top 12 bycatch species caught in our deep-sea hake fishery. This meant that its population was still vulnerable.
In fact, because of being caught as bycatch, panga is on the WWF-SASSI orange list – meaning, we should think twice before eating it, or rather opt for a green-listed species such as yellow tail, angel fish, or snoek.
This project inspired me to fully understand our fisheries bycatch and the measures in place to manage this, so that we can conserve vulnerable species like panga.
Soon after, in 2018, I heard about the opportunity to do bycatch-related research through the University of Cape Town as part of a fisheries conservation project involving WWF and the South African Deep-Sea Trawling Industry Association.
When I discovered that the aim of the project was to improve the management of 12 unintentionally caught fish species in the sector, I knew this was an opportunity I could not miss.
Partly funded by the WWF Research Fellowship, my Master’s project aims to assess which monitoring method (video footage or human observation) is more accurate and efficient in tracking fish catches on a deep-sea trawler vessel.
Video cameras are installed on a freezer vessel that operates in the deep-sea hake fishery. The cameras are set to record continually throughout a fishing trip. Once the vessel has completed its trip and returns to port I go aboard and collect the hard drive with the stored footage. Thereafter, I watch the footage and identify, count and estimate a length for every fish that comes into view of the camera. I also note if the fish is part of the target catch or bycatch and whether it is retained or discarded.
Eventually, I will compare the results from the video cameras, to the data recorded by independent observers and skippers on the same fishing vessels during the same fishing trips. This will determine which of the tools is more effective and accurate for monitoring fish catches.
This work has never seemed more important to me, and I believe the results have huge potential to make a positive impact in our fishing sector.
It can help us better manage bycatch species and also prove to be an invaluable data source that passively collects and records information on data-limited species. It will aid in enabling a sustainable approach to fisheries management and lead to an overall increase in the knowledge learnt about our much beloved marine ecosystems.
After all, it is not just about the oceans but also about sustaining livelihoods. It is crucial to do all we can to sustain our oceans, for people and for the planet.
Find out how you can make better seafood choices.