‘My life is being endangered’: the growing struggle against fishing bans

It is one of South Africa’s largest nature reserves, where hippos, elephants and endangered black rhinos live among wetlands, savannah and lakes. But iSimangaliso wetland park, a Unesco world heritage site favoured by wealthy eco-tourists for its biodiversity, is also the site of an increasingly deadly battle, between the people who live there and the conservationists ostensibly tasked with protecting it.

The rural Nibela community in KwaZulu-Natal province, one of the country’s poorest regions, have fished in Lake St Lucia for generations. It is their traditional land, but it is also a marine protected area (MPA), with regulations that restrict gillnet fishing and access to the lake. The park authorities generate income via tourists, who can pay 2,000 rand (about £100) for a deep-sea fishing trip. But the local fishers – who gain little or no benefit from the park and are not allowed fishing permits – say they are labelled poachers by armed park rangers who patrol the lake.

Last year, the conflict left a fisher missing, presumed dead – the second in two years from the same family. Police are treating as murder and attempted murder the death and disappearance of two brothers at iSimangaliso. On 12 November 2021, Thulani Mdluli, 24, went missing and is presumed dead after an altercation with rangers. The park authorities claim the rangers were shot at by poachers; the fishers protest they were unarmed. A little more than a year before, on 16 September 2020, Thulani’s brother, Celempilo Mdluli, 30, was fatally shot, allegedly by rangers, as he fished.

Aerial view of the iSimangaliso wetland park and Lake St Lucia, South Africa.
View of the iSimangaliso wetland park and Lake St Lucia. Photograph: Alamy

“We depend on fishing to put food on the table,” says Thomas Nkuna, 68, a fisher and father of 10 from KwaZulu-Natal. He says the struggling community has always fished to feed their families – long before permits were needed – and have no choice but to continue, even without permission.

“We have to fish at night, to hide from the rangers. But rangers patrol the waters and confiscate our tools,” he says. “Sometimes we run away. Fishermen have been killed by the rangers.”

The deaths are an extreme example of what has become a common problem. As scientists warn that biodiversity loss threatens to tip the world into its sixth mass extinction, many are pushing for a global target to conserve one-third of the world’s land and sea by 2030. From Antigua to Zambia, more than half of the world’s governments back this 30x30 target, which could be adopted at December’s biodiversity negotiations at Cop15 in Montreal.

On Tuesday, Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s secretary general, warned that in its current form the 30x30 proposal was “a grave risk” to the rights of Indigenous peoples and to conservation. She urged world leaders in Montreal to place Indigenous communities at the heart of the agreement.

Far away from the international spotlight, small-scale fishing and Indigenous communities say they are being forced to pay for a biodiversity crisis they bear little responsibility for creating. From Colombia to the UK, they are fighting against marine protected areas and fishing bans, arguing they are being disproportionately affected compared with commercial fisheries.

Artisanal fishers tell us they have struggles with marine protected areas – in some cases they are being displaced in the name of conservation

Amélie Tappella, Crocevia Centro Internazionale

In Colombia, where shark fishing was banned in 2020 to help end the shark fin trade, artisanal fishers from Afro-Colombian communities who have fished shark for centuries for local consumption say the ban threatens their cultural heritage and food security. In Greenland, traditional hunters in remote areas who have fished for narwhals for generations are at loggerheads with scientists who say the animal is on the brink of extinction. Hunters criticise the scientists for not listening to their traditional knowledge and question their counting methods.

In the UK, a vicar has led opposition to a marine protected area on the Holy Isle of Lindisfarne because, she says, it would have a “massive socio-economic” impact on locals who survive on fishing.

Hugh Govan, of the University of the South Pacific, who specialises in ocean governance, describes the 30x30 target as a “neocolonialist” approach.

“It imposes decisions on land and sea use on developing countries without evidence that these are the best tools to achieve their legitimate sustainability and development ambitions,” says Govan. “A bit rich coming from the countries that drive the global crises.”

He questions the real-world value of protection zones, which are often poorly governed.

“All too often, the most destructive fisheries are allowed or even subsidised to continue, while subsistence and community fisheries are criminalised,” he says.

Govan points to a controversial decision last year by Kiribati, which heavily relies on revenue from fishing licenses, to open the largest marine reserve in the world – the “no take” Phoenix Islands Protected Area – to commercial fishing. But the decision, Govan says, was based on research suggesting the MPA was doing nothing to conserve tuna. Instead, Kiribati argued, it would rely on an alternative method known as marine spatial planning to conserve ocean resources in a way that benefits its people. The approach has been used in Ecuador to balance conservation against moderate fishing, with inevitable compromises.

Imposed targets, such as 30x30, could even make things worse in developing countries, Govan argues, because it risks alienating coastal communities who, if involved in management, are adept at governing their own resources.

In the coral triangle of Indonesia, for example, a study in June comparing different management styles of MPAs found that allowing Indigenous people to participate in their management yielded more biomass than applying heavy-handed penalties. In the UK, the Sustainable Food Trust has found that small-scale fishers employ 10 times as many people as industrial fishers while having a lower environmental impact, using much less fuel and producing a fraction of the carbon emissions.

“Artisanal fishers from all over the world tell us they have struggles with marine protected areas – in some cases they are being displaced in the name of conservation,” says Amélie Tappella of Crocevia Centro Internazionale, an Italian NGO that acts as secretariat of the International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty, a platform of grassroots farmers and small-scale fishers.

Not including these communities risks losing invaluable knowledge and expertise, she says. “If governments only focus on establishing marine protected areas, not consulting the artisanal fishing communities or even entrusting them with direct management, we will lose their unique knowledge that allows us to find the key to a world where man and nature coexist.”

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One alternative approach to MPAs is being piloted in Port St Johns, in Eastern Cape, South Africa: a collaborative, “bottom up” project that will treat the community and government as equal partners in conserving resources. This pilot, lead by WWF South Africa, will offer the impoverished fishing community much-needed access to better markets for east coast lobster, a species that fetches a low price locally, in exchange for engaging in more sustainable fishing practices.

Craig Smith, senior manager of WWF South Africa’s marine programmes, who is leading the pilot, believes MPAs are necessary to reverse biodiversity loss. The problems arise, he says, when the needs of coastal communities are not taken into account as well.

“MPAs in South Africa have been very much a top-down approach,” says Smith. “The consultation process is a tick-box exercise. The government has set up MPAs, but does not have mechanisms in place where local communities can be accommodated. We don’t want to go down that road.”

Fishers in a boat surrounded by gulls on Lake St Lucia.
Fishers in a boat surrounded by gulls on Lake St Lucia. Photograph: Alamy

Jones Thomas Spartegus, youth representative for the World Forum of Fisher People in India, says new restrictions in the Gulf of Mannar biosphere reserve in Tamil Nadu are squeezing the community’s fishing rights while commercial vessels continue to trawl the ocean.

“Here, people view the ocean for two purposes: one for the ‘blue economy’ and the other, by conservationists, for the species,” says Spartegus.

“But my life in a traditional fishing community is being endangered.”