Fishermen off of the coast of Cape Town, South Africa. Photo credit: Taryn Elliot on Unsplash

South African fisherfolk catch a win against Shell’s seismic surveys

5 mins read

A South African high court has sided with local fishers against the oil giant amidst a near decade long legal battle. 

On December 28, the Grahamstown High Court in Makhanda ordered the Royal Dutch Shell oil company to cease its seismic testing along the wild coast region of the Eastern Cape. Often referred to as “untamed wilderness” by tourist attractions, the aforementioned stretches from the northern Mtamvuna River to the south’s Great Kei River. 

Ultimately, the court asserted the oil company did not have the necessary approvals to hold said explorations.

On November 2, Shell announced its “Amazon Warrior” vessel was set to commence using seismic waves to search for oil and gas in the Indian Ocean. For approximately four months, the operation would take place about 20 to 80 kilometers, or 12 to 50 miles, off the shore. 

Since, demonstrations have occurred along the coast. Protestors have urged boycotts of Shell service stations, even asking the country’s Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment (DFFE) Minister Barbara Creecy to comment. To which she countered, “Go to court. I’m not involved,” according to the Daily Dispatch.

In a December 2 open letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa, over 20 of South Africa’s leading marine scientists and academics explained Shell’s seismic survey as having an extremely detrimental impact on marine conditions. He has yet to respond.

The experts explain that in a semisic study like Shell’s, waves generated through compressed air are used to image layers of rock below the seafloor searching for the potential presence of naturally occurring hydrocarbons– or, oil and gas. Ultimately, they opine the seismic blasting will lead to long-term irreversible harm to marine life in the region

Tuesday’s decision comes a little over three weeks after Shell was allowed to conduct “an extensive seismic survey” off the province’s northern coastline by another court. Acting Justice Govindjee had dismissed an application to interdict Shell’s operations, a decision deemed “very disappointing…[but] all in the name of profit,” by Senior Climate and Energy Campaign Manager for Greenpeace Africa, Happy Khambule among others. 

Bait and trolling…

The latest  battle joins a broader war between the nation’s fishing community versus Shell. In 2012, Shell subsidiary BG International, operator of the Transkei & Algoa exploration right (Exploration Right 12/3/252), was awarded licensure via Impact Africa on a technical cooperation permit to explore almost 46,000 square kilometers, well over 17,000 square miles, off the eastern coast. 

By 2014, the government decision granted Shell permission to pursue seismic surveying spanning over 20 kilometers, or 12 miles, off the Eastern Cape coast. Litigants have been embroiled in a seven year tug of war, with opposition aiming to stop the oil company from exploiting natural resources and biodiversity for selfish economic pursuits.

This year, South Africa granted a second renewal period of the license for a two year exploration period in August. At the time, Shell and Impact planned to move forward with the acquisition of about 6,000 square kilometers or about 2,317 square miles of 3D seismic in 2022.

A final ruling is pending. 

Local fishing off the rocks in Cape Town, South Africa. Fishing has been an industry and part of the indigenous diet for many generations. Photo credit: Joshua Naidoo on Unsplash

Fishing during a pandemic

In South Africa, the fishing sector contributes approximately 6 billion South African rand, or nearly $400 million USD, annually and directly employs some 27,000 residents in the commercial sector. The country’s overall GDP is a little over 300 billion USD. Although smaller than others, the fishing industry currently makes up about one percent of the South African gross domestic product (GDP). 

“[Shell’s seismic survey] is also a threat against the livelihood of communities along the Wild Coast and in KwaZulu-Natal, who use the riches of the sea to put food on the table and to get an income. This is our ‘ocean’s economy’. It is about food, not about mining the ocean to make profit for the minority rich who think you can eat money,” laments Amadiba Crisis Committee co-founder, Nonhle Mbuthuma

Indeed, the pandemic highlighted foundational, structural cracks. Food insecurity and poor infrastructure accessibility made fishers’ daily lives all the more difficult. Coupled with a lack of basic means such as safe drinking water or technological use, the industry is essential. So much so, the National Coronavirus Command Council excluded fishers from South Africa’s 21 day national lockdown in 2020. Its importance to the domestic food industry was cited.

Still, traditional often-rural based fishers, who do so for sustenance, are plagued with poverty and remain marginalized by the government as it pertains to resources. Even affecting their overall economic prospects, such as snoek run, an important economic activity among many fishers there.

| Read: South African high court revokes jacob zuma’s medical parole as omicron numbers surge

“We were very happy to hear that fishing is classed as an essential service. But what does this mean to us?,” questioned Coastal Links EC Chairperson, Ntsindiso Nongcavu. “The Lockdown has affected us left and right. There were food parcels going around the communities, but only [five] people were selected in each community. Those food parcels were not enough to keep hunger away. There are fishermen facing the challenge of not having permits because they were not able to register on time, now whenever they go fishing they get arrested.” 

To add insult to injury, he claims the Administration is ignoring local fishers while giving financial aid to businesses affected by COVID-19. While some are denied assistance because they did not have legitimate fishing permits nor business registration. Others claim the government just does not want to help. 

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) task force purported the already impoverished country as doubly marred by record high unemployment rates and social inequality that even worsened institutions like education for disproportionately affected, vulnerable populations– kids, women, and the poor– a seeming commonality.

“The COVID-19 pandemic hit South Africa at a time when its economic vulnerabilities had already been aggravated by a prolonged period of depressed investment, subdued growth, and high and rising public debt. In this context, the country suffered one of the largest output contractions among emerging market economies (EMEs) in 2020,” according to the IMF’s 2021 Concluding Statement on South Africa released December 8.

. . . .

Our environmental situation does not only involve shrinking lakes nor penises, but carries substantial long term risks we are seeing manifest in our lifetimes. To calm a world on fire, under water, and shaken up, the largest world leaders are now making promises to back-log a minute portion of the cataclysmic damage done. Yet, it may be too late. 

Hence, we should aim to avert any further potential environmental hazards risking said catastrophes. Remember, we may not feel the impacts of our decisions now. However, there were people 30 years ago who answered with the very nonchalance costing us today.   

Seemingly, freezing winters or searing summers followed by several category 4 hurricanes and deadly tornadoes will continue to color the backdrop of our failing world economy until we take climate-related matters seriously. 

Just fish food for thought.

Yolanda Aguilera focuses on culture, policy, domestic, international relations, and the African and Latin Diasporas.

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