Original Articles

Case studies on the socio-economic characteristics and lifestyles of subsistence and informal fishers in South Africa


To develop a management strategy for informal fishers, a necessary first step is information about the nature of these fishers, their numbers and their socio-economic status. To accomplish this, a survey of socio-economic conditions and use of marine resources was undertaken in 1999 at 20 localities where fishing occurs around the coast of South Africa, concentrating on subsistence or small- to micro-scale artisanal commercial fishers. In each locality, 16–31 "fisher households" were surveyed by questionnaires, focus-group discussions and interviews with key informants. Demographic analyses revealed a low level of migrancy (∼5%), an average of 5.3 persons per household and a mean age of 27. Only ∼20% of fishers were women and ∼15% were children. Poverty was prevalent: unemployment averaged 40.3% (much higher than the national norm of 29.3%). Mean adult equivalent income per month spanned R193–R735 among regions, and was not correlated with size of settlement. Education levels were low, only ∼33% of people >20 years old having completed primary school. Migrancy was highest in rural areas (but still much less than the national norm), intermediate in towns and least in metropolitan areas. Household size, participation of women and poverty all followed similar trends. Comparing regions, the East Coast and the province of KwaZulu-Natal had higher migrancy rates, larger household sizes, greater poverty, and greater participation by women in fishing, than on the South and West coasts. Household expenditure on food was ∼R450 per month on the South-East and KwaZulu-Natal coasts and ∼R750 on the West Coast, and exceeded 60% of income (a measure of "food security") in about half the households surveyed. Harvested resources were sold, consumed or used as bait. In all regions, the two most frequently harvested resources were fish (mostly sold, predominantly fished by men) and intertidal rocky-shore invertebrates (largely consumed, and involving women to a greater degree). On the West Coast, rock lobster Jasus lalandii was the third-most important resource, but on the South and KwaZulu-Natal coasts this species was replaced by estuarine invertebrates. Abalone Haliotis midae, oysters, sandy-beach invertebrates and kelp or seaweeds made up the balance. Diversity of harvested resources increased west to east, following biogeographic trends. The resources could be divided into those of high value (rock lobsters, abalone and, to a lesser extent, fish) and those of lower value (such as limpets, mussels and bait organisms). It is argued that high-value resources are best used to create micro- and small-scale commercial enterprises that can serve to uplift poor fishers. Low-value resources constitute subsistence resources, for which preferential rights should be established for subsistence fishers, including development of exclusive-use zones where necessary. Emerging characteristics of fishing communities that were helpful in defining subsistence fishers in the South African context were poverty, harvest for self-use (whether by consumption or sale to meet basic needs of food security), use of low-technology gear, and concentration of effort on or from shores or in estuaries. At least portions of the catches of all resources are sold, and the majority of equipment is purchased, so any definition of subsistence fishers cannot exclude those who sell part of their catch or do not use hand-made equipment. Some success was evident with co-management, encouraging further exploration of this style of management for subsistence fishers.

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