Local fishermen feeling the pinch from reclusive squid

By Bev Mortimer:

Port St Francis’ 640 squid fishermen, like their counterparts elsewhere in the Eastern and Western Cape, are undergoing a tough time right now.

Lessening of squid catches in the region stretching from Port Alfred to Plettenberg Bay, which accounts for around 80% of South Africa’s squid exports, has caused layoffs while most boats lie idle in ports. In Port St Francis in St Francis Bay around 40 boats are no longer going out to sea, according to Greg Christy, director of DMA Fishing in Port St Francis.

Squid fishing boats lying idle in Port St Francis

He points out that the squid industry is facing one of its worst catches in 10 years. “If catches are low it is not viable for boats to go out to sea.”
He agrees with reports that 2012 has been a tough year for around 2400 fishermen in the whole region.

In order to survive fishermen are taking loans from their employers to pay back in good times again. Balobi’s managing director, Mark Rowe, was reported as saying that last November and December the squid catches were down by 50%.
He and Christy have both said that since February this year catches have also been down. “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,” Rowe said.

Each fisherman has about four other mouths to feed and most do not receive wages or commission while they are on land. Including families, this means about 25 000 people are dependent on the performance of this fishery for a livelihood.

Rowe told St Francis Chronicle that companies were lending money to fishermen and other employees. Some were supplying food parcels and other assistance so fishermen can sustain themselves and their families. He said some of Balobi’s 180-strong crew were going out to sea for only 10 days and if they caught nothing they earned at least R63-50 a day.

Eyethu Fishing acting GM, Anthony Edmeades, was reported as saying companies cannot currently export owing to lack of squid. He says the scarcity of squid is also affecting factory workers.

He pointed out that the squid industry has been catching about 7000 tons per season (November-October) but this amount has now been halved. “Diesel and wages cost about R100 000 to send a skipper and fishermen out to sea for 21 days. 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.”

According to the Centre for Observational Oceanography, the South African squid fishery is based in the Eastern Cape and made up of some 150 SMMEs, directly providing jobs for up to 2500 fishermen. Fishermen go to sea for periods of 21 days and are paid accordingly to their catch. Minimum daily rates while at sea, however, have been implemented which has pushed the cost of operation even higher.

The Oceanography centre says the entire catch is exported mainly to Europe and Japan, which brings much needed foreign revenue into South Africa and particularly to the impoverished Eastern Cape. “The high value of the product ranks this industry as the 4th most important of the South Africa fisheries.
“Squid catches, however, fluctuate greatly and are erratic. Such uncertainty hinders optimal performance of this fishery. Moreover, during times of poor catches, the income of fishermen is severely reduced. In some instances, boat owners (including new black entrants) have defaulted on vessel repayments and jobs were lost. Under these circumstances, socio-economic hardship impacts severely on coastal communities.”

Reasons for the poor squid catches are numerous. Christy also believes that the squid industry is prone to fluctuations. Researchers have pointed out that squid were possibly not laying as many eggs, or their eggs were not hatching.

Robert and Sauer (1994) hypothesised that high turbidity forces spawning squid aggregations to lay eggs in deeper waters, making them unavailable to squid fishers. They also hypothesised that the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) may cause large fluctuations in the availability of spawning squid aggregations. Environmental variables affect spawning aggregations; they also affect squid catches since squid are mainly caught during spawning. The extent of these catches strongly influences the fishers’ livelihoods.
The inshore and offshore regions of the Eastern Cape, South Africa, are well documented as spawning grounds for chokka squid (Loligo vulgaris reynaudii). Statistical modelling on the inshore spawning grounds has shown that turbidity is the most important environmental parameter which negatively influences catches (Schon et al. 2000).
Scuba diving observations reveal that at times, this region experiences a benthic nepheloid layer which causes “black-out” conditions on the ocean floor. It is believed that high levels of benthic turbidity (muddy conditions at the bottom) inhibit the spawning process (Roberts 1998).
The Oceanography centre says squid spawn in the inshore and offshore regions of the Eastern Cape, South Africa. Commercial fishing of chokka occurs mainly on spawning squid aggregations.
“Highly fluctuating yearly chokka catches is thought to be caused by environmental conditions. Benthic turbidity (‘Black-out’ conditions) has been shown to be the most important environmental parameter which disrupts the squid spawning process. This results in a decline in commercial catches. This study was undertaken to determine the dynamics, characteristics and causes of benthic turbidity events in the spawning grounds of chokka squid along the South African South coast. This ongoing study involving monitoring of turbidity, waves, temperature, currents and catches forms an integral part of a much larger model incorporating climate, oceanography and biology and their relation to squid.”
Other research has shown effects of temperature on the embryonic development. Embryonic development time decreased with increasing temperature. An optimum temperature range for development was identified between 12 oC and ~17 oC, at which development took 50.1 and ~26.6 days respectively. Outside the optimal temperature range (=9 oC and =21 oC) abnormal embryonic development occurred.
Studies off St Francis Bay and Cape St Francis have indicated that rapid changes in temperature, such as sudden upwelling events, may disrupt spawning activity for a short time, but further investigation is needed to confirm this. Gradual temperature changes, however, do not disrupt spawning.

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