Survey to set sail in funding squall
A BUDGET crisis at the fisheries department has grounded an important ocean survey and raised questions about the future of research and patrol vessels.
The fleet plays a vital role in species stock assessments and quota allocations, and patrols the coast to combat illegal fishing.
An April research survey did not take place and another was postponed due to an apparent financial shortfall, several sources confirmed this week.
After last-minute repairs, the flagship research ship Africana is expected to sail from Cape Town tomorrow to conduct a survey originally scheduled for May. The monthlong research cruise hung in the balance until the last minute.
The Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries declined to answer questions this week. But the Sunday Times has established that:
The South African Maritime Safety Authority, which manages the fleet on behalf of the department, did not receive the money to complete fleet repairs;
As a result, contractors were not paid, resulting in interruptions to repair work; and GOING FISHING: The flagship research ship Africana, which is expected to sail from Cape Town tomorrow
A funding shortfall resulted in the fleet’s monthly operating budget being spread across the entire year. The fleet’s annual budget is around R200-million.
Industry umbrella bodies Fish SA and the South African Deep Sea Trawling Industry Association confirmed that there were concerns about the fleet, which has navigated troubled waters since a vessel management fiasco in 2013.
A failed bid to award an R800million contract to Sekunjalo Investments resulted in the fleet being transferred to the navy, where many vessels fell into disrepair. They were rescued by Samsa and repaired at great expense, but now face a fresh budgetary crisis.
“They have cut the budget drastically,” said trawling association secretary Johann Augustyn, a former fisheries department chief director.
“It’s the second year in a row they [the department] didn’t do the South Coast demersal survey. If you start missing several surveys it increases uncertainty, and that means having to set a lower total allowable catch.” This translated into less income.
Last year the private sector paid R700 000 for its own survey of another fishery in the absence of an available government vessel.
Fish SA executive director Jeremy Marillier said the organisation would continue to speak to the department in search of “constructive solutions”.
A source in the ship repair sector was less diplomatic. “They don’t even have money for fuel, or for equipment that needs to be repaired. Half of the electrical stuff has been locked away [by unpaid contractors],” he said.