Govt's war on trout

Ed Herbst on the likely consequences of efforts to declare the fish an invasive species

According to popular folklore, the Codesa negotiations reached a beneficial turning point during a trout fishing trip when Cyril Ramaphosa plied Roelf Meyer with a couple of neat whisky’s before extracting a fly which was embedded in his hand.

One wonders what the new political leader of the African National Congress and the country makes of proposed legislation which lists trout not only as alien but invasive, a listing which will have a significantly adverse effect on tourism, job creation and property prices?

The essence of the current controversy is that trout need running water to breed and eventually die out when placed in dams. This necessitates the re-stocking of such dams with trout bred in hatcheries, a practice which the proposed legislation will make illegal and liable to punitive legal consequences.

A very small number of streams which experience heavy fishing pressure are stocked. Trout dams play a major role in the economies of towns like Dullstroom, Lydenburg, Waterval Boven, Himeville, Underberg and Clarens and villages like Rhodes, and their presence has significantly improved property prices and tourism in these places.

These dams have to be re-stocked annually and trout hatcheries which supply fish for stocking purposes, as well as for the table, form an integral part of the trout value chain which contributes billions of rands to our gross domestic product and employs thousands of people.

Permits are required to transport trout from hatcheries to these dams and streams and if such permits are denied, the hatcheries stand to lose a significant income stream. Hatcheries in Mpumalanga are already experiencing difficulties.

Early in 2014, the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) introduced draft legislation which, if made law, would result in trout being listed as invasive.

Given that South African law requires property owners to eradicate invasive species, this meant that the 125 year-old trout value chain would have to be dismantled, thus closing the trout hatcheries, prohibiting the stocking of dams and streams and devastating the economies of towns offering trout fishing opportunities - from Dullstroom and Lydenburg in the north to Underberg, Elgin and Franschoek in the south.

Luckily, that same year saw President Jacob Zuma launch Operation Phakisa to ‘unlock the economic potential’ of South Africa’s maritime resources. This program included aquaculture and, consequently, South Africa’s large trout-based aquaculture industry.

Reneging on the agreement

During this conference a compromise was reached but it seems, in retrospect, that in reaching this compromise, the DEA was just playing for time. Its Deputy Director General, Dr Guy Preston, who is leading the war on trout, announced last year that the DEA was reneging on the agreement reached at Phakisa. Aquaculture SA complained in terms of the prescribed Phakisa Process but its complaints were ignored. It should come as no surprise that the DEA is responsible for managing the Phakisa process.

Now the DEA has announced via Dr Preston’s office that the Minister, Edna Molewa, intends to amend the Alien and Invasive Species legislation to list trout as invasive.

If trout are listed as invasive, it will effectively render all hatcheries illegal overnight; prevent the importation of trout eggs which hatcheries use and prevent riparian owners from collecting and transporting trout fingerlings to stock their income-generating dams and streams.

Here are some of the relevant clauses listed in Chapter 3 (Restricted Activities) of the DEA”s draft amendments published in the Government Gazette of 16 February which define what trout hatcheries and owners of dams or streams containing trout are forbidden from doing:

·        Spreading, or allowing the spread of, any specimen of a listed invasive species;

·        releasing any specimen of a listed invasive species;

·        discharging of or disposing into any waterway, water body or the ocean, water from an aquarium, tank or other receptacle that has been used to keep a specimen of an alien species or a listed invasive freshwater species;

To cite just a single instance. Trout hatcheries take water from a river or stream, run it through the tanks where the trout are reared until they reach a saleable size and then the water, after being filtered, is released back into the water course. The reference above to the discharge of water once it had passed through the trout-containing tank was obviously drafted with the clear intention of making trout hatcheries impossible to run without breaking the law and, consequently, subjecting themselves to harsh punitive measures the moment the new anti-trout legislation is gazetted.

A legal challenge has been mounted by the Federation of Southern African Fly Fishers (FOSAF) which is supported by a consortium of interested parties in the tourism and sustainable use sectors. A copy of their letter to the Minister can be found here.

Economic consequences

The National Development Plan calls for the growth of South Africa’s economy, especially in rural areas. It calls for increased access to a better quality of life for the previously disadvantaged and especially the rural poor. However, this is not possible if officials, for whatever reason, kill the goose that lays the golden egg.

The trout value chain is an important goose that feeds rural economies where trout occur in South Africa. The value of trout for the economy of South Africa has been emphasised in study after study as the following brief chronology illustrates:

- In 2010, Mario du Preez and Deborah E. Lee of the Department of Economics at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth published their research findings The contribution of trout fly fishing to the economy of Rhodes, North Eastern Cape. They found that fly fishers visiting Rhodes to angle for trout contributed R5 million annually to the economy of a village where employment opportunities are negligible and where the majority of residents are dependent on social grants. The local availability of trout fishing resulted in the employment of 85 people comprising 14% of the village population.

- In 2013 Gareth Butler of the School of Tourism and Hospitality at the University of Johannesburg published his report, An Assessment of the Social and Economic Impacts of Tourism Development in Dullstroom, Mpumalanga.

His conclusion?

‘In the context of Dullstroom and the surrounding region, tourism has been shown to provide a valuable solution to unemployment. Tourism sector jobs provided numerous opportunities for both social and economic growth and ensured that many residents from Sakhelwe were afforded standards of living that were perhaps far greater than those in similar townships throughout Mpumalanga or even the country itself. Moreover, these livelihoods included the strengthening of community ties and empowered black females with the skills and confidence levels to develop and grow beyond traditional male spheres of influence.’

In 2014, Cobus Venter, a consultant for the Bureau of Economic Research, calculated that fly fishing for trout contributes R1.876 billion to GDP and sustains employment to more than 13000 people.

Property values enhanced

All of the above does not take into account property values which are enhanced by proximity to trout fishing opportunities.

Research on trout-related tourism in KZN indicates that some 5% of all domestic tourism trips to KZN in 2016 were for the purposes of fly fishing – and the vast majority of those were for trout fishing. That equates to around 209 500 trips to KZN in order to participate in fly fishing. The value of those trips would have been more than R232 million. In other words, this is a substantial niche tourism sector.

The DEA claims that listing trout as invasive will not harm these value chains. It even suggests that the trout value chain will be better off if trout are listed as invasive. These claims are patently absurd. Listing a species as invasive is not a good thing. Local and international law requires South Africa to take steps to eradicate invasive species.

The trout value chain representatives are clear on this issue. Declaring trout to be an invasive species will definitely cause significant harm, even a catastrophic decline in the value chain. What farmer will want to stock trout if failing to comply with DEA’s “terms and conditions” could result in up to a 20 million rand fine and a sentence of up to 20 years in jail? The real threat of financial ruin and imprisonment will place too high a risk on staying in the trout value chain. It will wither and die and the vibrant ecotourism economy the trout value chain supports will wither and die.

Hatchery destroyed

For a trenchant and telling case study one need look no further than the former Ezemvelo KwaZulu Natal Wildlife trout hatchery in Kamberg in the KZN Drakensberg. This camp with its rondawels and trout dams had been a popular fly fishing destination for decades and was booked out months in advance during annual holidays. Generations of fly fishers can testify to having had their angling start at father’s knee at this beautiful venue. Then, following the anti-trout siren call, the hatchery was destroyed by the Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, its buildings reduced to rubble.

This is a telling portent of the consequences of the DEA’s hostile approach to the trout value chain. Should the department continue with its war against trout, the Kamberg scenario will play itself out once again, but this time throughout the country.

Trout have been in South African waters for over 125 years, and in that time, a significant and very productive industry has built up around them. It would be extremely short-sighted to destroy it.

To create an aesthetically attractive environment which will attract paying fly fishing guests, the farmer has to forgo planting crops and retain a pristine ecosystem in the mountain catchment areas where the trout dams are located. This factor alone contributes hugely to nature conservation in its broadest sense.

The old adage applies: If it is not broken, don’t fix it.

Ed Herbst is a founder member of FOSAF, president of the Cape Piscatorial Society and recently co-authored a book on indigenous South African fly patterns. He writes in his personal capacity.