Europe's fishing fleet, too big for its own waters, wants permission to move into the recently rehabilitated waters off South Africa's coast.
But South Africa - from the government to unions and industry - is intent on preventing European fishing boats from casting their nets within 125 miles of the country's coastline.
"We're going to be fairly brutal about this," says Alec Erwin, South Africa's trade minister. "We are not considering any discussions on access to our waters."
This determination is hardened by an enduring dilemma faced by economically fragile nations in the process of development: How to protect their resources and domestic industries from stronger foreign competitors, yet keep the door open to outside investment. The case of South Africa is even more complicated, where the EU appears to be sending a mixed message: On the one hand, expressing solidarity with South Africa's emerging democracy; on the other, apparently poised to pounce on its fisheries.
Edwin Smith, a spokesman for Mr. Erwin, says South Africa "cannot entertain enlarging foreign access to waters" because its "primary target" must be turning more fishing quotas over to black South Africans, denied such opportunities under apartheid.
South Africa's waters are defined by the 125-mile "economic exclusion zone" (EEZ) that many countries claim as the marine limits of their jurisdiction. The government says Spain and Portugal are pushing the EU to press for access to those waters, as the two countries are currently the main buyers of South Africa's lucrative hake exports and both have excess fishing and fish-processing capacity at home. But Spain's and Portugal's ambassadors to South Africa deny they are the ones pressing for these rights, and that it is in the hands of the EU to conduct negotiations.
Both Smith and a spokesman for the South African fisheries department express dismay over what they see as Europe's - particularly Spain's - recent history of depleting other nations' fisheries.
Environmental organizations share their concern. "Currently more than 25 percent of fish caught by the EU are caught outside its waters," says a recent World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) report. "The vast majority of the ocean's remaining fish stocks fall under the jurisdiction of developing countries, many of which grant licenses to foreign vessels. Most developing countries lack the means to police these zones. Thus foreign vessels frequently fish illegally in EEZs, particularly off the coast of Africa."
The WWF says that between 1983 and 1990, EU support to its fishing industry rose from $80 million to $580 million, about 20 percent of it being spent on ships. As a result, the EU has sought agreements, mainly with developing countries, for access to their more abundant fishing waters.
If Europe "doesn't have the capacity for the industry," says Mr. Smith, "then they shouldn't have the industry."
A frequently cited example of European overfishing occurred in Canada's East Coast cod fishery. Canada has accused Spain of depleting that fishery to the point that it had to be closed, at a cost of US$1.8 billion in welfare payments to Canadian fishermen (and women). Argentina similarly complains about the Europeans. Senegalese small-scale fishermen accuse EU vessels, particularly those from Spain, of overfishing to the extent that certain species seem to be in decline.
And during the 1980s Spanish vessels paid $80 million per year for access to Morocco's waters. "Today the stocks of squid, cuttlefish, and octopus are so low, the deal isn't worthwhile. Both countries lose out because of lack of management," says the WWF.
In response to such accusations, Miguel Angel Carriedo, Spain's ambassador to South Africa, asks, "How can they know it was us" who depleted foreign fisheries. Portugal's ambassador, Manuel Fernandes Pereira, says his country has been "unjustly accused" of depleting these fisheries. Both say it serves politicians in countries with depleted fisheries to blame foreigners rather than their own nationals.
Serge Garcia, a fisheries expert with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, notes the example of Senegal as a country that expanded its own fisheries industry while simultaneously selling fishing licenses to offshore foreign fleets. In such cases, says Garcia "there will be too many boats running behind too few fish. When the resource base goes down, who is to blame?"
"A lot of Europeans and Russians overexploited hake, South Africa's most lucrative fishery, in the period prior to declaration of the EEZ in 1977," says Monde Mayakiso, chief director for South Africa's marine and coastal management department. After 1977 South African fishing companies and the government "agreed on a strategy to re-build the resource, which meant they agreed to catch less than their capacity."
South Africa's strategy to rebuild its hake fishery continues today. Dr. Mayakiso says that although the hake population might sustain a catch of up to 220,000 tons per year, only 171,000 tons will be taken this year. The catch has been at or below the latter figure for 23 years. Estimates from his department show hake numbers have just managed to regain their 1970 level - which was less than half that of 1940.
Close to half South Africa's hake catch is exported to Europe, mainly Spain and Portugal. South African officials say it's obvious they'd lose that European market, were the EU ships to compete with them for it.
With fisheries talks set for Nov. 29 in France, the South Africans are already taking firm positions, still smarting over 1999 EU trade negotiations over wine and spirits. They say the EU played hardball, belying the Union's stated intent to use trade to encourage economic growth and democracy in South Africa.
Smith says that, as in the wine and spirits talks, "the EU is trying to tie the successful conclusion of a fisheries agreement to a broader trade agreement." But he says if the EU does so, there are "remedies in that broader agreement through which we can seek recourse."
Mary McCauley, spokesperson for the EU mission in South Africa, says Europe is not necessarily going to ask for access to South Africa's waters. "There's an agreement between the EU and South Africa that by the end of the year we'd sit down and work out an agreement on fisheries, but we haven't been able to have any meetings with them yet."
She says fisheries "have always been controversial and sensitive. We've had our own battles over [fisheries] access treaties" between EU nations.
Mr. Pereira says Portugal is sympathetic to the fact that South Africa is "going through the transformation of its fisheries industry and so it wouldn't be responsible to expect immediate fishing rights" for the EU. "It would be much more constructive to discuss co-operation to allow both sides to benefit from the experience of the other." He says that might include operating "fishing vessels under the South African flag although they would belong to Europeans."
Smith says the government is wary of EU proposals for 'technology transfer' as an aid deal for South African fisheries. One proposal would involve the transfer of ownership of some EU ships to South Africans. "If they're talking about building capacity in the fishing industry in South Africa, that's fine," says Smith. "But if it will mean giving them access to our waters, we have a problem with that. We cannot accept the notion of being assisted and destroyed in the process."
Mr. Carriedo notes that South Africa may not need an EU fisheries deal. While such a deal would likely reduce or remove tariffs on European fish imports, those existing tariffs do not hinder South African sales to Europe, particularly Spain, the second-largest fish market in the world, after Japan.
While demand for fish in their countries remains high, Carriedo and Pereira say their national fishing industries have been downsized in recent years. "Fishing plants have closed, oh, yes, mainly in the north-west and south of Spain," says Carriedo. "Those areas are going through a very bad time."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society