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There’s no catch: It’s climate change…

For small-scale fishers, life depends on their being plenty of fish in the sea. For decades, the community of small-scale fishers in the Kogelberg area enjoyed this abundance. But then things started to change.

© Mark Chipps
Some fishing communities like Kleinmond in the Kogelberg region of the Western Cape have been fishing since the early 1900s.

While overfishing and illegal fishing are some of the major issues facing small-scale fishers in South Africa, the changing climate also presents a serious threat to many fishing communities who rely on marine resources to feed their families.

As ocean acidification increases, and water temperatures and sea levels rise, we are witnessing a change in distribution, abundance, migration and survival rates of many marine species. Fishers in Kleinmond, Pringle Bay and Betty’s Bay in the Kogelberg region of the Western Cape are faced with these bleak consequences on a day to day basis.  

I spoke to my colleague, Sindisa Sigam who is WWF’s small-scale fisheries project co-ordinator and works closely with fishers from this area about the subject. He says the Kogelberg fishing communities are starting to feel the impacts in a real way.

How do fishers describe how changing climactic conditions affect their livelihoods?

In my conversations with the fishers, they claim that the distribution and abundance of fish in the area have been negatively influenced by changes in water temperatures. Once abundant species are no longer found in high numbers, and in some cases have not been caught for years. This means that fishers go out to sea more often, even in bad weather, and have increased their effort to try to catch something. 

Another factor has been the changes in wind patterns. Stronger winds mean fewer days at sea, thus fishing time has been curtailed. In fact, many fishers say it is a waste of time to fish from the boat because they are catching less fish. It is a no-win situation, as boats are hired and boat owners require half the catch as a form of payment for hiring their vessels.

Fishers have lost their enthusiasm for fishing, and their reason is simple: “There are no fish in the sea anymore”.

What are some of the fish that have become scarce in this area?

Snoek, a popular and iconic South African species, used to be one of the most abundant fish in their area. Five years ago, snoek was so abundant that fishers even sold them for around 50 cents each. Sadly, they report not having seen or caught snoek in their waters since 2014.

Three fishermen with snoek
© Claudio Velasquez
Kogelberg fishers have lost hope of ever catching snoek from their waters again.

Some fish, like carpenter, locally referred to as silver fish by Kogelberg fishers, used to be caught close to shore, but now they have to travel further out to sea to catch it, and for fishers using small, single engine boats this is a major safety risk.

In summary, climate change has affected the number of fish that fishers catch and sell, which has a direct impact on their income and food security.

How are generational fishers adapting their lifestyles?

Traditional line-fish boat fishing is no longer a thing for Kogelberg fishers due to changes in fish distribution and abundance, thus many of them have had to find alternative ways of earning income. Some have unfortunately turned to illegal fishing activities, including the poaching of West Coast rock lobster and abalone as these species are relatively easy to catch as a shore-based activity.

Fisherman with rock lobster
© WWF South Africa/Natasha Prince
West Coast rock lobster numbers have drastically decreased in the Kogelberg region, and poaching is one of the contributors to its decline.

Many fishers know that illegal fishing of already-depleted species has a negative impact on the stocks and that it may lead to the extinction of the species in future, but they see it as the only means of income.

Some find short-term employment such as gardening or cutting trees for firewood. Others are fortunate enough to get temporary employment in government projects, but unemployment is rife and times are tough.  

How has this work (engaging closely with community members) impacted the way you see climate change?

I have realised that climate change has affected the communities we work with so badly that they see no value in catching fish anymore, even though this has been their way of living for decades. It has made me realise the seriousness of the impacts of climate change and its repercussions on what was once a vibrant fishing community.

What can we take away from the plight of fishers?

People need help, and climate action is a matter of urgency. The fact that a community like Kleinmond that has relied on fishing for decades now is struggling to adapt is a serious issue.

In your view, what can be done to help fishers adapt to climate change impacts?

I think the best way to meet fishers half way is by creating sustainable supplementary and/or alternative livelihoods.

WWF South Africa is currently working on a new project funded by the government of Flanders. One of the objectives of the project is investigating a concept called Ecosystem-based Adaptation (EbA). EbA aims to use biodiversity and ecosystems to support communities in adapting to the constantly changing climate by creating alternative and supplementary livelihood opportunities. We are working with various stakeholders in exploring various projects that could work in the area based on what the predicted climate will be and what the community wants. Activities such as vegetable gardens, aquaponics, small-scale aquaculture, et cetera, are being explored. 

The project has just started and there is a lot of work to be done before full implementation. 

If successful, the project will help communities become more resilient to the impacts of climate change.

Fishing boat small-scale fishers
© WWF South Africa/Natasha Prince
Some fishers have no choice but to keep trying, hoping that every day would be different.
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Dimpho Lephaila, Communications Officer

Dimpho believes in the power of science communication, because it is through knowledge sharing that people can learn and change their behaviour.