Why I hope(d) the next president didn’t like fish – revisited – fourteen years ago!

angling on Namibia's coastline
photo courtesy KingBob 2013

Recently back from a coastal angling expedition with friends Dave and KingBob, I have to admit that I’ve never really been very good at catching ‘size‘ west coast Steenbras Lithognathus aureti, also known as seabream (oder Westkusten-Streifenbrasse). The species is endemic to the coastal waters from Cape Town to southern Angola, with the main population breeding in Namibian waters.  In spite of three decades of trying, and potluck once in a blue moon (figuratively) I am still mostly left guessing what the tell-tale signs of a ‘size’ steenbras nibbling at one’s (hopefully correct) bait actually are. 

This realisation was brought to a head (my blood pressure cooketh over!) by a local newspaper article (see below), after four days of fairly intense angling along the northern stretches of Namibia’s coast accessible to the ordinary, licensed fisherman.  With place-names like Mile 108,  ‘Bennie’s se rooi lorry‘,  ‘Predikant se gat‘,  Blare, and the Winston.  All famous for their (historical) offerings of Kabeljou, Steenbras, Galjoen, Dassie, and increasingly infamous for the notorious Sea Barbel – a fish with poisonous barbs, but certainly worth smoking :-)!  We stopped counting barbels after the second day, and between us caught only two, just-size (40cm) Kabeljou, and released as many under-sized fish, and a single sand shark.

We did have a great time on the beach, in spite of the very few meaningful bites and highly variable weather conditions – there was even an early morning storm a few kilometres north of us, giving us a dramatic exhibition of sheet lightning.  As usual, we were mostly able to enjoy the remoteness of these spacious northern beaches, when not disturbed by a stream of 4×4 vehicles with, almost exclusively, South African registration plates, driving up and down the beach packed with foreign fishermen (“vistermanne“) and their racks of fishing poles.    

Which brings me to the real reason for this particular blog entry; to revisit some of my complaints about ‘vistermanne‘ in the limited recreational coastal angling area of Namibia.  

The offending  article in Namibia’s daily Republikein,  carried this contributed photo – 

The original Afrikaans caption loosely translated reads – 
‘Mr Jan Brink from Somerset-west/Stellenbosch (South Africa) with his catch of (4 March 2013), using Henties Bay as a base. This well-known fisherman along Namibia’s fishing waters caught eight of the large steenbras’ (presumably all on the same day, and I guess he’s the ‘big fella’,  third from left)

How on earth can the Republikein publish and compliment
this fishing tourist for his oversized catch in this day and age!  Does the editor have no shame?  While there is a pathetic N$200 fine for each over-sized steenbras (longer than 65cm) harvested beyond two over-sized steenbras a person may keep on any one day of fishing, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that such shoals of very large breeding individuals, in the reproductive prime of their lives, are extremely uncommon these days.  

Such magnificent fish should, at all cost, be gently returned to the sea in order to contribute offspring to an alarmingly reduced endemic population on our coastline. Not slaughtered by a foreigner on a rare day.  Foreigners who clearly don’t give a shit. 

So while the ‘lucky’ Mr Brink and his ilk continue to contribute significantly to the destruction of our precious environment, for very little return on the part of our local economy, us locals will likely see the demise of this wonderful edible fish in our lifetime.  

Remember, too, that Steenbras of the size caught by Mr Brink are tough-eating;  no way as pleasant to the palate as a pan-size fish.  Fostered by some bizarre notion that *pickled* fish is a culinary delight? Get a life! 

So what is the f*cking point of killing these magnificent reproductive steenbras?  Because they can.  In Namibia.  Legally, under a recreational angling permit,  kill and remove up to three days’ accumulated oversized steenbras per permit-holder in the vehicle used to transport said vistermanne and their respective plunder.   

So when you next see a South African registered vehicle, filled with four burly vistermanne,  towing a sagging venter freezer out of Henties Bay, do the math.  Under the existing recreational angling permit conditions they may transport:

24 over-sized steenbras, 24 over-sized kabeljou, and the balance of 72 ‘size’ edible fish – galjoen, kabeljou, dassie and steenbras.   And don’t forget the 60 snoek per permit-holder they’re also allowed to remove under a recreational angling permit in Namibia.  Throw in 28  lobsters, and you’ve got a packed freezer likely to cover your (obviously non-commercial :-)) overheads of a long road trip to Namibia and back.  If these fellas also liked smoking barbels, add 360 barbels, and, oh yes, the 12 sharks for their Asean friends back in Durbs. 

These fish are transported  to South Africa where they are (theoretically) subject to a N$505/permit-holder recreational (fishing) importation fee at the border – and this is where things also fall through the cracks – there’s nothing in the South African regulation which stipulates that a recreational (fishing) import permit should be issued to each of the vistermanne in the vehicle importing said plunder of fish.  Nor is there any record of the number of fish being imported – only whether they’re fresh, frozen or chilled!   

In South Africa the west coast steenbras is a Red-listed, no-sale species, meaning that it is illegal to sell or buy this fish, anytime, anywhere.  In South Africa, this species is also specifically reserved for recreational anglers in possession of a recreational angling permit, which sets daily bag and transportation limits, as well as minimum (and maximum) size limits. Recreational fishers are not allowed to sell their catch

In South Africa the daily bag limit is ONE west coast steenbras per permit-holder, not less than 60 cm long. *  

So now we know why South African vistermanne like Namibia.  

Our coast has, for decades, been synonymous with large catches of line-fish species. Recreational anglers share this resource with a very small but greedily-commercial line-boat and “recreational” ski-boat sector, which makes management of these line-fish species somewhat complicated.  For historical reasons, South African angling regulations were enforced here before Namibia’s Independence in 1990. These management regulations such as minimum size limits and daily bag-limits, were not based on scientific investigations on local species, but were formulated for South African species.  Indeed, it can be argued that there was absolutely no scientific basis to the use of size and bag limits for long-lived species like Steenbras.

Sadly, for the West coast Steenbras, over-fishing has decimated the population in the designated recreational angling areas.  This state of affairs must change. Urgently.

Studies in 1996/97 and in 1998 showed that recreational angling earned the country approximately N$30 million compared to only N$5 million for the commercial sector. It is therefore argued by Ministry of Fisheries scientists that the recreational sector is an important revenue stream for Namibia.   

So what options are there (if we had a genuinely concerned Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources) ?

Firstly, the west coast steenbras must, like the Galjoen, become a non-commercial, red-listed, no-sale species, meaning that it would become illegal to sell or buy this fish, anytime, anywhere.  

If stocks of this endemic species are to be recovered and managed wisely, there should be an initial moratorium on catching and keeping any size Steenbras for at least 5 years  
(there is strong evidence, from studies of similar angling species in South African waters, for exploited fish species to recover stocks following protection within a marine reserve).

[* I’m a strong proponent of BOFFFF rules of fisheries management.  BOFFFF = Big Old Fat Fecund Female Fish.  BOFFFF are the larger, older females which generally produce a lot more offspring, more times per year, than younger females do (in long-lived species like our Steenbras!).  Additionally, the offspring of larger females are often healthier and more likely to survive. Older fish are more likely to survive and contribute in the ‘bad years’ when bad
environmental factors reduce recruitment to the fish stocks. For many species, one of the best ways to ensure long term successful reproduction and replenishment of the fish 
stocks is to protect the larger, healthy female breeders. I advocate the introduction of BOFFFF limits (maximum size limits and bag limits to protect large fish) for species like Steenbras, Kabeljou and Galjoen. We should return the big breeding fish to breed another day. We should maximise the protection for fish and habitat, while minimising the impact on, enjoyment of and access to recreational angling. We must also ensure that recreational anglers learn how to handle fish to ensure maximum survival when they catch and release these large fish.]

There are a few management methods available to conserve older fish in an exploited population like our west coast Steenbras:

  • Reduce the rate of exploitation of Steenbras significantly — even though it can be argued (by our local fisheries scientists) that this is an economically infeasible option, given claims made by the revenue generating tourist fishery (a daily bag limit of ONE west coast steenbras per permit holder, with no more than one specimen per permit holder transported per vehicle, ever);
  • Institute a smaller maximum size limit – a genuinely “edible” size  – of say 45cm – for keeping — an option primarily available for fishes which can readily be released unharmed after capture;
  • Designate new marine reserves that set aside areas in which fishing for Steenbras is prohibited and older fish can survive and spawn — even though the extent of accessible coastline for our recreational fishery is already relatively small (see map)
  • Change the attitude of angling tourists who visit our designation recreational angling areas.

Marine reserve and moratorium options (no-take zones) make sense, particularly for non-migratory, endemic species like our west coast Steenbras, where the full range of sizes
and ages can thrive.  No other method of management, not even BOFFFF limits,  can preserve the potential for longevity as well as marine reserves and allow the contributions of older fish to accrue to the population. 
While no-take zones can be a hard sell to commercial fishermen and uneducated recreational anglers (have you ever seen the piles of litter left behind on our beaches by such recreation? That is, before the howling wind disperses it?)  the BOFFFF concept should make sense with fishermen who know the value of large spawners — if for no other reason than the fact that larger females produce more eggs, which result in more fish! 

Fourteen years ago I had published an article in the Namibian, incensed by the environmental degradation resulting from wanton abuse of (power and) fish resources in one of Namibia’s (then) more pristine wilderness areas – the Skeleton Coast Park (SCP).  As I recall, the tipping point was a government bakkie (pick-up)  filled to brim with enormous Steenbras caught on one short day by a crew of Sam Nujoma’s recreational angling entourage north of Moewe Bay – with some bullshit excuse about testing the waters for a trip by Sam and his gang later in the week.  A trip which eventually didn’t take place, thank gawd.

I think my concerns remain pertinent – while prices have gone up and fish quotas have been reduced, and we have a new President who doesn’t like to fish (again thank gawd!), the wanton abuse of our coastal angling resources has not abated, with very few controls in place to arrest the slaughter.   

This needs to change – urgently – even if I never get to eat another Steenbras in my lifetime – so that my children and their children can.  


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Posted in #namibia, albatross, ATF, BOFFFF, bycatch mitigation, cartoon, conservation, Dudley Viall, fisheries, namibian, republikein, satire, seabird, steenbras, vistermanne, wildlife

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