Nelson Mandela Bay enterprises sink teeth into shark fishing

GOOD TO EAT: The smooth hound shark is one of the main species being legally exploited by two Port Elizabeth-based permit holders
GOOD TO EAT: The smooth hound shark is one of the main species being legally exploited by two Port Elizabeth-based permit holders

Commercial shark fishing is not a sector you would normally associate with South African waters but there are six permit holders nationally — and two of them are based in Port Elizabeth.

Unathi Wena and Fisherman Fresh run three long-line shark fishing vessels out of the Bay.

In 2014, Port Elizabeth Harbour-based Fisherman Fresh was acquitted of exporting sharks and octopus without a permit, a charge laid against it by the then department of agriculture forestry and fisheries.

Little has surfaced about this enterprise since then, so the Weekend Post then approached the department of environment forestry and fisheries for clarity.

Department inspector Dennis Mostert said on Thursday two Port Elizabeth Harbour-based companies, Unathi Wena and Fisherman Fresh, had permits issued in terms of the Demersal Shark Long Line Sector.

He said the companies were permitted to fish for a variety of common sharks including smooth hound, requiem, dusky, cow, St Joseph’s, vaalhaai and bronze whaler sharks and a limited  by-catch of species like Cape gurnard, dusky kob, rays and skates was also permissible.

“They are not allowed to catch any great white or ragged tooth sharks, and though hammerhead sharks may be landed, they may not be sold or exported.

“If they do hook one of these sharks, as soon as they realise their mistake they must release it and, if it is too late and it is dead, then it must be recorded in the fishing log and declared to the fisheries inspector when the vessel berths,” Mostert said.

“The use of stainless steel hooks is also prohibited to ensure that when they cut the line to release a prohibited shark, the hook will rust over time and the animal will survive.”

He said some cutting up of the sharks at sea was permissible but the obligation was that the trunk, tail and fins must remain intact to allow inspectors to check the catch when they land.

“We weigh and record each catch in a report which we submit to the research section of the department.”

Another condition is that the boats may not fish in marine protected areas and to prove they are adhering to this stipulation, each of the vessels, in line with the general condition for fishing boats, is fitted with a satellite vehicle monitoring system.

This allows the fisheries department to track them and to pinpoint their whereabouts at any time, he said.

“Restricted waters in the Port Elizabeth area include the new Addo marine protected area around the islands in the eastern part of Algoa Bay, and Sardinia Bay.”

Apart from this obligation to stay out of protected waters, Unathi Wena’s two boats and Fisherman Fresh’s one boat have permission to fish anywhere between Port Elizabeth and Mossel Bay, he said.

“They are strictly monitored and we’re satisfied at present that they are adhering to their permits and are fully declaring their catches.”

Once approved by the South African fisheries authorities, the shark catch was exported to Australia, he said.

“It’s used there in the fish shops and sold as a takeaway flake and chips. The Australians love it.”

According to the Melbourne-based academic journal The Conversation, poor labelling of cooked seafood in Australia is a concern in sustainability circles.

This means that flake might not be gummy shark — the one species identified by the conservation lobby as a sustainable option for making flake because it is a local species, fast growing and with a high reproduction rate.  

Replying to questions on Thursday, Unathi Wena said only that it had a permit and was abiding by the stipulated conditions. 

It confirmed it was running two vessels  and that there were six permit holders in the sector nationally — and referred further questions to the fisheries department.

Despite several attempts, Fisherman Fresh was not available for comment by the time of going to print.