Squid depletion leads to massive layoffs

Rochelle de Kock dekockr@avusa.co.za

THE Eastern Cape and Garden Route fishing industry is reeling from a dwindling squid population which over the past six months alone has resulted in multimillion-rand losses, affected at least 2400 fishermen and put factory workers on short-time.

The severe strain on a region which produces 80% of South Africa’s squid exports has stopped some major companies from sending boats out to sea while those which do, risk losing thousands of rand per fishing trip because of the lower yields.

The only lifeblood for the industry at the moment is a steady supply of sardines which is keeping some companies afloat.

Meanwhile, the numbers of hake and horse mackerel, which are usually exported, have not necessarily decreased, but because of a flat overseas market, fishing companies battle to make a profit internationally.

Researchers have warned that the low squid yields could be a long-term problem, possibly because the squid were not laying as many eggs, or their eggs were not hatching.

Fishermen said they were at their wits’ end, with the reduced income playing havoc with their lives as most were the only breadwinners in their families.

“We get no set wages, we work on commission, and that makes it hard for us, as fishing is seasonal,” Nelson Mandela Bay fisherman Mandla Ksitistso said.

“This is not the first time this has happened, but it is certainly the worst,” he said.

Port Alfred fisherman Henry Tipis said he had been forced to look for other work.

“We have been without work now for seven weeks and it is difficult to provide for our families,” he said.

Fellow Port Alfred fisherman Willie Mtana said he was borrowing money from his bosses “just to survive”.

Bay-based Eyethu Fishing acting general manager Anthony Edmeades said the bad squid run had affected about 2400 fishermen.

He said that over December and January – the peak period for squid when 50% of the season’s yield was usually caught – there were several days when the water temperature had been above 25°C, which was much higher than normal.

Research indicates that squid prefer colder water. Edmeades said: “Sea-going fishermen – in excess of 2400 jobs – have been affected because companies cannot export as there is no squid to export.

“This is not even to mention the factory workers.

“We work on a no-work, no-pay policy and some of our workers have had to be put on short-time. It means millions of rand in revenue is lost.

“For the last three years, the squid industry has been consistently catching about 7000 tons per season [from November to June], but now that is down to about half.

“A rough estimate would be about R220-million in revenue lost for the country,” Edmeades said.

He said it cost about R100000 to send a skipper and fishermen out to sea for 21 days, which included the food, wages, diesel and levies. The crew would have to catch between 3.5 and four tons of squid to make a profit.

“One of the boats that came back recently brought back about 2.1 tons and we sell the squid at R50/kg, so it was a big loss.

“It’s not worth our while to send squid vessels out to sea at the moment,” Edmeades said.

Talhado Fishing Enterprises, based at the Port Elizabeth Harbour, said it would cost the business more than R100/kg to send a vessel out to sea, and that would only cover fuel and wages.

It specialises in squid fishing and exports mainly to Spain, Italy, Greece and Portugal.

Talhado sales director Dino Moodaley said: “It does not make economic sense to send vessels out at the moment. We employ about 400 people in the group, the majority of which are fishermen whose wages depend on catches. They are therefore not earning any income at the moment. The shore-based staff [factory workers] are working short-time.”

Greg Christy, the director of DMA Fishing in Port St Francis, said the squid industry was experiencing one of its worst runs in more than a decade.

“The reality is if the catches are down, the boats are not going out to sea. It has been a tough year for the crews,” he said.

Balobi Fishing, also based in Port St Francis, processes, packages and exports squid, hake and pilchards.

Balobi’s managing director, Mark Rowe, said the company had noticed there was a problem after the fishing season opened in November last year.

“We normally catch between 32% to 40% of our season’s catch in November and December, and last year we were down by 50%. In February, the numbers declined and in April it just became dismal.

“We have given each skipper a boat to go out to sea for 10 days to see if they can catch anything, but there is no meaningful sign of squid anywhere,” he said.

Rowe said they had resorted to loaning their workers money to sustain themselves and their families with the understanding that they would pay back the money once the situation improved.

“It’s a temporary situation; things will revert to normal. We do hope for light at the end of the tunnel.”

All the companies affected said they were fortunate to also specialise in sardines, which had had a good run.

Edmeades said the company did not have to go far to catch sardines.

“Normally at this time of the year we are looking for sardines in Mossel Bay, but it’s still right here. Our quota is going to be up before the sardines move on.”

He said the robust sardine run could also be a contributing factor to the scarcity in squid.

“My opinion is that the pilchards are attracting more dolphins and, if there is an increase in predator fish around, the squid spread far and wide.

“Another theory is that the water has been warmer than usual,” Edmeades said.

Professor Warwick Sauer, head of the Ichthyology and Fisheries Science Department at Rhodes University, said there were a few reasons for the scarcity of the squid.

“Sometimes the squid spread out and do not concentrate together because there is not a lot of food available in the vicinity of boats.

“Another reason could be the poor recruitment of squid, which means one of three things – either squid are not laying many eggs, or what they lay does not hatch, or the little ones that do hatch don’t survive.” Additional reporting by Liam May

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