Sardine imports save jobs

OUT OF AFRICA: Afro Fishing (with the green roof) in Mossel Bay has signed an innovative import deal with Moroccan companies Picture: Supplied
OUT OF AFRICA: Afro Fishing (with the green roof) in Mossel Bay has signed an innovative import deal with Moroccan companies
Picture: Supplied

Deal with Moroccan firms keeps cannery afloat

With the sardine catch quota drastically reduced, a southern Cape fishing company has turned to Africa to “keep the pot boiling” at its canning factory and retain its 400 factory employees.

Afro Fishing has imported thousands of tons of Moroccan sardines through the Port of Ngqura since it signed a R90-million deal involving Moroccan fishing companies in November.

The deal also allows the company to continue supplying its main client base – 10 government-managed school feeding schemes around the country.

The profits were not large but it was worthwhile, Afro Fishing founder and chief executive Dewald Lourens snr said yesterday.

“It’s an expensive operation and the margins are narrow so it’s a nerve-racking business,” he said.

“But we have nearly 400 people working at our factory and there aren’t many jobs out there if we had to lay them off. We had to do something.”

The deal was precipitated by the drastic reduction in the annual national total allowable catch (TAC) for sardines issued by South Africa’s Department of Forestry and Fisheries from 90 000 tons in 2014 to 23 964 tons this year. One factor among many that the department’s scientists have had to consider is the sharp drop-off in the population of the African penguin – which has been widely attributed to a reduction in the sardines it preys on.

This reduction has, in part, been attributed to shifting shoaling patterns caused by climate change, but also to overfishing.

However, Lourens said he was hopeful the situation would turn itself around.

“I’ve been in this industry for 30 years and it works in cycles,” he said. “I believe the sardine numbers will return. However, at the moment the TAC is not big enough for us to supply our clients or to keep our factory going, which is why we had to look to Morocco.”

Sardine sales are booming in Morocco and the North African country harvests one million tons of sardines a year for its own processing as well as selling to buyers in countries like Russia and China.

Prompted by the decrease in the allowed catch, South Africa’s major fishing canneries had already approached Morocco.

But Afro Fishing, founded 11 years ago, was the only sardine cannery in the KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape and southern Cape region to have taken the step, Lourens said.

“Since we started importing frozen sardines from Morocco last year we have brought in 50 containers, and we aim to bring in 250 this year,” he said.

“Each container holds 28 tons of sardine cutlets, so that’s 1 400 tons last year and a predicted 7 000 tons this year.”

The cutlet processing, in which the head, tail and intestines are removed, cuts the weight of the fish stock in half so the deal entails the harvest of double the weight of sardines from the sea.

Morocco’s Sardinops pilardus tasted much the same as South Africa’s Sardinops sagax and was of similar quality, Lourens said.

The smaller Moroccan fishing vessels use the same purse seine trawl technique used in South Africa. The larger steel fishing vessels with refrigerated sea water systems on board use drag trawling, which is not used in South Africa.

The sardines from Morocco are caught in the north Atlantic, mostly off the port towns of Dakhla and Laayoune, and then shipped off in freezer containers on Safmarine vessels from the port of Agadir.

After being brought in at Ngqura, they are unloaded and trucked down to Mossel Bay where the Afro Fishing team get into gear, Lourens said.

“Once they are unloaded we thaw them and put them into cans before sending them off to the school feeding schemes,” he said.

“We just want to keep alive and this deal has allowed us to do that.”

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