Let us fish or we will starve, subsistence fishers plead

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A third-generation fisherwoman, Layla Ebrahim, grew up on the beaches and piers that line the KwaZulu-Natal coast.

The waters there have been good to her and, like her father and grandfather before her, she has built a life for herself and for her family off the back of daily hauls of shad and rock cod.

"I put my two children through school and kept them fed without anyone else's help," the proud 56-year-old said yesterday.

But almost two months after the lockdown took effect, the ban on recreational fishing remains in place and Ebrahim is now struggling to make ends meet because while she fishes for a living, she – like many others – does so on a recreational permit.

"My husband is collecting a pension but that only covers our rent," she said, "We can't put food on the table. Our children want bread but how do we buy it for them? It's near impossible".

Ebrahim said the community was more than willing to abide by social distancing protocols.

"We know about the pandemic and we don't want to get the virus or to infect others," she said. "But we can practice social distancing on the beach and wear masks and carry sanitisers."

Many other sectors were able to resume their operations – albeit to a limited degree – when the lockdown moved from level 5 to 4 this month and commercial fishing was currently permitted, but Ebrahim felt government was ignoring subsistence fishers.

"It's like we don't exist. They don't see us," she said.

Riaz Khan, the chair of the KwaZulu-Natal Subsistence Fishing Forum, said yesterday that subsistence fishing was a tradition in many families and had allowed generations of men and women to "live their lives without asking for handouts".

Khan said he had borne witness to the devastating impact of the lockdown on the community.

He said subsistence fishers usually kept half of their hauls and sold the other half and that in this way, they could make up to R500 on a good day.

There were around 30,000 subsistence fishers in KwaZulu-Natal alone, Khan said, and the lockdown had crippled them.

"I've seen people without food, crying," he said, "If the virus doesn't kill them, then hunger will."

Khan also pointed to the annual sardine run, which usually reaches KwaZulu-Natal between May and July, and said it was important that subsistence fishers were able to take advantage of the bumper hauls it brought.

Democratic Alliance MP Hannah Winkler wrote to the Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, Barbara Creecy, this week and appealed to her to lift the ban for subsistence fishers who use recreational permits.

Winkler said the party had been inundated with desperate pleas for help.

"This has left many families in circumstances of utter desperation," she said. "Subsistence fishers are often those individuals who exist on the economic fringes of society and who have barely been able to subsist under pre-Covid-19 economic conditions."

Winkler charged that by removing subsistence fishers' right to use their recreational permits under the lockdown, government had "condemned these individuals and their families to hunger".

The department had not yet responded to a request for comment at the time of going to press.

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bernadettew@citizen.co.za


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Bernadette Wicks – Citizen

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