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 Hake has had its chips

Fiona McCloud M&G 30 June 2006

Consumers who ease their consciences by eating hake instead of endangered, fish species need to think again. Fishing industry experts warn that unless drastic action is taken hake will soon be the size of a sardine -- if you can find it at all.

Over-exploitation of hake, mostly by fishing trawlers, has seen catch rates reduced by about 30% in the past few years. The average size of the fish being caught has almost halved.

Hake is the country’s most valuable fish resource, earning up to R3-billion a year. The South African hake fishery was the first in the world to receive international eco-friendly accreditation.

Barely two years after the industry was awarded the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) standard for sustainable fisheries, however, scientists and fishers are warning that hake resources are in serious decline. There have even been calls for the MSC accreditation to be revised.

“Tons of ‘baby hake’, fresh or frozen and ‘coated in expertly seasoned batter’, are increasingly appearing on the refrigerated shelves of supermarket chains. On average these fish weigh no more than 120g each and are not much larger than a decent-sized sardine,” said an industry insider who did not want to be named.

Part of the problem is that transformation of the industry has seen fishing rights extended to more players. While 43 trawlers were registered to catch hake in 1999, 79 are registered this year.

The amount of fish each trawler is allowed to catch has reduced accordingly, tempting some trawlers to over-fish and to dump dead tiddlers back into the sea. One expert estimated that up to two-thirds of the hake caught is being thrown back.

“Dumping is illegal, but the bigger the fish, the greater the profit,” said a consultant in the industry. “Local fresh hake buyers have noted a decrease in the size of hake coming off the boats from 4kg or 5kg to 2kg or 3kg.”

Trawlers account for 90% of the hake catch. Deep-sea trawlers say longline operators are causing the decline by catching hake breeding stock, while longliners blame the trawlers for forcing them into the fish’s spawning grounds.

As a result of the increase in operators since 1994, total allowable catch (TAC) rates for hake were permitted to rise from about 135 000 tons a year in 1993 to 166 000 tons by 2001. Operators started noticing smaller fish and decreasing catches after 2000.

Solly Kganyago, spokesperson for the government’s Marine and Coastal Management branch, said it had reduced the TAC in recent years in response to concerns about the declines.

Last year’s TAC was cut from 161 000 to 158 000 tons, “pending the development of a new operational management procedure to provide future scientific recommendations”. This year the TAC was further reduced to 150 000 tons, and another 8 000-ton reduction is expected in 2007.

Critics say this is too little, too late. They point to drastic action taken in February by Namibia’s Minister of Fisheries and Marine Resources, Abraham Iyambo, in response to similar concerns about the Namibian hake industry. Iyambo closed the hake fishing season for two months and cut the TAC by 40 000 tons -- to below 140 000 tons -- until the average size of hake had improved significantly.

Hake is big business in South Africa, comprising at least 50% of the fishing industry. The biggest and best fish are exported to countries such as Spain, France, Portugal, Italy, Australia and the United States.

Sharon Mattinson, spokesperson for I&J, one of the two biggest players in the hake industry, expressed concern about the “pressures” on hake resources. “We believe the resource is not performing economically,” she said.

Since April 2004 the MSC eco-label has been displayed on most South African hake export products, providing a stamp of sustainable management. It is not often seen on local products, however.

South African hake is placed on the “green” list of sustainable fish dishes recommended by the newly launched Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative, which aims to encourage eco-friendly consumer behaviour. This means it is better to eat hake than potato bass or Cape salmon, listed on the “red” and “orange” danger lists.

According to Kerry Sink, chairperson of the initiative, it would be premature to remove hake from the green list. “We have heard concerns about hake, but it is certified by the MSC and we could not contradict this,” she said.

Additional reporting by Nic Dawes


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