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Why Hout Bay fishermen die making a living

On Friday 7 August four men sat around a table in Hangberg, Hout Bay, watching the harbour and waiting for the body to arrive. Two of the men were drinking beer out of small glasses and smoking cigarettes, flicking the ash into an empty abalone shell. Angelo Josephs, the owner of the house, leaned against a pair of sliding doors overlooking the bay. It was three o'clock in the afternoon. The water was smooth. Josephs punched more airtime into his phone and made another call. “Here, they’re coming now,” he said.

The men gathered around him as a red and white National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) boat drew into the bay. A smaller rubber duck followed closely behind, bouncing in the first vessel’s wake. The boats curved into the harbour and moored at the southern breakwater, next to the blue tower that dispenses ice to the commercial hake and anchovy fleets. At the slipway across the water, where vehicles from a film shoot filled the parking lot and customers sat drinking at the Lookout Deck, a policeman was explaining to residents why the body had not been taken there instead. “It would cause a scene,” he told them. “We can’t do something like that in front of the restaurant.”

Angelo Josephs stands at the door of his house, waiting for Clint Jacobs' body to return to the harbour.

By the time the drowned fisherman was lifted off the boat there were fifteen people standing on the breakwater, separated from the activity by a rusted fence. Josephs, who had driven down with the men from his house, tried to talk his way into the area beneath the ice factory, where the police divers were busy with their procedures, but the officer at the entrance, who knew Josephs by his nickname, refused. “That’s our brother,” said Josephs, his fingers wrapped around the gate. “We need to identify the body.”

“It will slow everything down,” the policeman answered with some empathy. “Please wait.”

For 20 minutes the body lay wrapped in plastic at the edge of the quay.

A few more people arrived in cars and on bicycles while the duty officer paced beside the body, filling out forms. Nobody spoke much. Two anchovy boats approached for ice but retreated when it became clear what was happening. Ralph Warner, a 56 year-old Hangberg skipper, stood next to Josephs, who is also a fisherman, and lit another cigarette. “They call us small-scale fishers but we’re dying on a large scale,” he said.

“They call us small-scale fishers but we’re dying on a large scale.”

When the forms were finished four men were allowed inside to retrieve the body. They struggled out with the bag, placing it on the concrete behind one of the police vans. The small crowd drew nearer. Somebody peeled open the plastic. Clint Jacobs lay with his shoulders hunched and his dreadlocks tugged loose. His cheeks were cut and heavily swollen. His trousers had been removed, perhaps in an attempt to swim ashore when the rowboat overturned. His shirt and underpants were soaked through. An old woman wearing spectacles and a blue worker’s smock stepped back and covered her mouth when she saw the body. “It’s him,” she said, wiping her eyes and looking away as the plastic was pulled shut.

Hangberg residents wait next to the ice factory quay.

Clint Jacobs, 39, had gone out shortly before sunset the previous evening. The sea had been rough for weeks, leaving few opportunities to work. When the swell subsided that afternoon Jacobs hiked over the saddle above Hangberg to catch crayfish. Faizel Lee, a 27 year-old fisherman who lived nearby, accompanied him. The men launched a wooden rowboat from the sheltered cove behind Duiker Island and began setting their traps. By morning, when conditions had worsened again, they hadn’t returned.

“Upon being alerted to the incident at 11h53 on Friday our Hout Bay station responded immediately,” said National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) spokesman Craig Lambinon. “NSRI Hout Bay launched two sea rescue craft to begin a search, assisted by the Police Dive Unit, Western Cape Government Emergency Medical Services (EMS), and the Skymed rescue helicopter.”

But by then Jacobs’ body had already been found washed up on rocks near Duiker Island by friends who knew where the two men had gone fishing. According to members of the community Jacobs and Lee were working illegally, harvesting crayfish for one of Hangberg’s organised poaching networks. Fearful of punishment, their associates had delayed calling for help.

“We urge people to contact us as soon as possible whenever there is an emergency,” said Lambinon. “The NSRI has only one job, and that is rescuing people from sea.”

“If people want to think of it as illegal that’s fine. How else must we put food on the table?”

On Thursday night two carriers waited on shore to lug the men’s catch back to the settlement, where a local middleman would have paid between R60 and R70 per kilogram, selling the product on to bigger players in the illicit crayfish trade. Half the money would have gone straight to the boat owner, who wasn’t on board that night. The fishermen would have paid their carriers and split the rest — around R280 each on a typical night, according to Josephs, who has also poached crayfish in the past. “If people want to think of it as illegal, that’s fine,” he said. “How else must we put food on the table?”

For generations fishermen from Hangberg have flouted regulations to earn a living from the sea, evading legislative and structural barriers to basic equality that have been in place for more than a century. Since the early 1900s, when crayfish flipped from being considered ‘poor man’s food’ to a valuable commodity through the development of a profitable export market to Europe, traditional fishers have been marginalised from accessing resources targeted by the commercial fishing sector, instead being co-opted as cheap labour.

Lance van Sittert, an environmental historian at the University of Cape Town (UCT), has documented how fisheries scientists began establishing ‘rock lobster sanctuaries’ — ostensibly no-take zones to protect stocks — in the Western Cape from 1918 onwards, responding to early signs of resource depletion. While these early restrictions may have been presented as marine conservation measures they were tightly entwined with the needs of industry.

In 1934 a sanctuary was proclaimed in the Karbonkelberg area behind Hangberg — where Clint Jacobs and Faizel Lee died last week — effectively shutting down the community’s traditional fishing grounds and criminalising its core livelihood activity. (The Karbonkelberg fishing grounds were proclaimed a Marine Protected Area as part of the Table Mountain National Park in 2004, effectively replicating the rock lobster sanctuary of 70 years ago.) The consequences of this action, followed a generation later by the full onslaught of apartheid social engineering, continue to play out in Hout Bay today.

Angelo Josephs has collected photographs of drowned Hangberg fishermen.

In January 2014, Hangberg residents Garth Adonis and Jason Johnston drowned while fishing illegally off Slangkop, Kommetjie. In August 2011 Verno Hendricks, aged eleven, drowned after being swept off the rocks while collecting alikreukel (sea snails) near Duiker Island. In August 2010 Burno da Silva drowned poaching abalone in the same area. In April 2006 Leroy Phillips drowned poaching crayfish between Hout Bay and Llandudno. He was the 13th fisherman from Hout Bay to drown in an eight-month period. “It goes on and on,” said Josephs, who has collected photos of the deceased men and organised protests at Hout Bay harbour after the 2014 incident. “Perhaps 50 people in total. When will it end?”

Angry residents like Josephs maintain that Hangberg fishermen would not risk doing dangerous illegal work if there were more legitimate opportunities for them to earn a living from the sea.

The South African Medical Research Council (MRC) keeps a national database of drownings and other fatal injuries but could not supply statistics for Hout Bay by the time this article was published.

Hangberg fishermen would not risk doing dangerous illegal work if there were more legitimate opportunities for them to earn a living from the sea.

Small-scale fishers still struggle to access marine resources through the quota system in South Africa, despite nearly two decades of fisheries reform efforts by the state. Fishing rights were reserved for white applicants only during apartheid, leaving fishers from places like Hangberg to find work in the commercial sector.

Hout Bay harbour, once a thriving fishing port where vessels regularly brought in large catches of pilchards, anchovy and hake, has declined as a hub of employment since the 1970s, in part due to declining resources. Over the same period Hangberg’s population has increased dramatically, from 3,300 people in the 1970 census to what residents say is more than 7,000 people today. (The 2011 census data for Hout Bay were not disaggregated for Hangberg, making it difficult to check this figure.)

While the national fisheries authority has repeatedly tried to bring small-scale fishers into the fold as quota holders since the end of apartheid — most recently through the adoption of a new small-scale fisheries policy in 2010, which still remains to be implemented properly — the process has been slow and unwieldy, leaving thousands of fishers across the country, and hundreds in Hangberg, without direct legal access to marine resources.

In the meantime, poor law enforcement and a lack of viable alternatives have fuelled the evolution of lucrative illicit crayfish and abalone trades, which now function as big employers in a number of Western Cape fishing communities. While poaching offers a form of income, however, it is unregulated and carries great risk: its participants must avoid patrols by working in rough conditions or at night, often using poor equipment and little or no safety gear.

“Illegal fishers risk their lives because the chances of being arrested are relatively slim, while the rewards are much higher than what they could possibly earn as unskilled labourers,” said fisheries consultant Shaheen Moolla, director of Feike Natural Resource Management. “Their alternative, of course, is unemployment.”

Clint Jacobs, who was known as ‘Rasta’, moved to Hangberg from the Eastern Cape 21 years ago. He had no relatives in the community but was widely loved, according to Josephs. Faizel Lee, nicknamed ‘Hottot’, was born into a local fishing family, and fathered his first child earlier this year. By the time of writing his body had not yet been recovered, despite a full search by community members, police divers, the NSRI and Western Cape EMS over the weekend. “It takes seven days for a body to decompose,” Josephs said. “We know this because it’s happened so many times before. We have until next Saturday to find him.”

Last Friday the small group of residents dissipated a short while after Jacobs’ body was unveiled. Two police officers remained behind, waiting for a forensic unit to arrive. On an adjacent quay, cast and crew from an American feature film drank coffee outside their food truck. At the Lookout Deck the heaters had been turned up outside, bringing warmth as sunset drew nearer. Chapmans Peak was flooded orange behind the breakwater, where a solitary police van stood. A white plastic shroud lay on the concrete beside it.

Kimon de Greef is a freelance journalist and researcher from Cape Town. He wrote a masters dissertation on abalone poaching in Hangberg in 2012. The top and bottom photos of Hangberg are by David Harrison. The other photos are by de Greef. Small corrections with regard to the body bag were made after publication.

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