The growth of fish farming in South Africa


Aquaculture presents South Africa with a more sustainable way of harvesting fish. The World Wildlife Fund of South Africa says our seas are overexploited. (Image: Industrial Development Corporation)

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Shamin Chibba

It was a cool and windy spring afternoon in East London when the executive director of the Oceanwise fish farm, Liam Ryan, met Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) officials outside his office. As he led them to a nearby tank facility, his white overcoat flapped relentlessly in the gust coming in from the shores of Leaches Bay.

“We are farming kabeljou on land,” he yelled into the wind. “It’s been green-listed by WWF-SASSI [Worldwide Fund for Nature-Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative] because our impact on the ocean and the species is minimal. We only used a handful of parent kob from the sea. Also, the sea water is used sparingly; 90% of it is recycled.”

October is National Marine Month and one of the main focuses during the month is on finding more sustainable ways of harvesting seafood. Ryan said aquaculture was that solution. It is, perhaps, South Africa’s cure to over-exploitation of its waters.

Oceanwise is located in the East London Industrial Development Zone and is a pioneer in South African aquaculture. It specialises in harvesting kabeljou, otherwise known as kob, and supplies major retailers such as Pick n Pay, Woolworths and Food Lovers Market. Oceanwise’s kabeljou is green-listed on the SASSI list, which means it is legal to buy. Wild caught kabeljou are protected and the WWF-SA discourages consumers from buying them. All of the 900 000 fish at the farm are descendants of 20 parent kob that came from the Sunday’s River area in Eastern Cape, just 40 kilometres east of Port Elizabeth.

For each year of its pilot research, between 2004 and 2008, Oceanwise produced 400 000 fingerlings from those parents. Not only did it prove the venture would be profitable, but it also proved that aquaculture would significantly reduce the impact on marine life along South Africa’s shores.

Oceanwise started farming in 2009. It was a slow process at first, with its first fish only reaching the market in 2011. “It had to be built up because it takes about five months to get to about 150 grams and about a year for full growth,” Ryan explained. Five years later, the farm produces as much as 25 tonnes of kabeljou for consumption every month.

Innovative fish farming for less privileged

A Cape Town company is using fish farming to feed and empower the less privileged by providing them with fully functional fish farms made out of shipping containers.

Alan Fleming, director of The Business Place, an entrepreneur development and assistance organisation in Philippi, Cape Town, designed the farm last year and describes it as “profitable, affordable, repeatable, transportable, lockable and stackable”. He said it was designed to provide a cash-poor collective or poorer urban families with an income and high quality protein right where they lived at an affordable price. The space required for the container was minimal, and it could operate on energy obtained from solar power.

“I’m working with taking the operational expense of electricity out of the equation, and dumping into it a capital expenditure item of renewable energy. This adds R200 000 to the price. If it gives four people a permanent livelihood, then that means about R80 000 per livelihood.”

Fleming said the farm could be stocked with tilapia, a hardy fish that feeds on phytoplankton, a microscopic plant.

Part of the World Wildlife Fund’s pocket guide to purchasing fish. Note that the species listed in the red with a black background are illegal to sell in South Africa. Those with an arrow have local improvement projects underway whereas those with prohibited symbols next to them are specially protected species. View the full pocket guide. (Image: WWF-SASSI)

Aquaculture new to South Africa

Aquaculture was still in its infancy in South Africa, said Ryan. Historically, the country’s long coastline meant it had access to large quantities of fish so there was no need for fish farming. However, with the coastline becoming increasingly exposed, the storms that repel fishermen and the demand for seafood rising, aquaculture has become more attractive.

It is a relatively small industry in South Africa and in the past the government did not give it much attention. But in 2007, it began to take notice of the potential of the industry. Because of a growing shortage of traditionally harvested fish such as hake, the government invested R100-million in aquaculture projects in all four of the country’s coastal provinces.

Government again showed its dedication to aquaculture when President Jacob Zuma launched Operation Phakisa in July this year. It will look to unlock the growth potential of the country’s coastline, which is in line with the National Development Plan.

The operation will implement policies and programmes faster and more effectively. As a result, Zuma said it can unlock the ocean’s potential to contribute up to R177-billion to the country’s GDP and create as many as one-million direct jobs.

Aquaculture is a big part of that plan. According to Zuma, government recognises the industry as a way of contributing to food security since it has shown strong growth of 6.5% per year. Operation Phakisa will look to grow all segments of the aquaculture industry, especially by creating jobs within processing and marketing.

Even with this investment, however, South Africa lags way behind the rest of the world. According to experts Cécile Brugère and Neil Ridler, the world’s aquaculture sector has grown at an annual rate of 9.2% since 1973, and is projected to grow at 4.5% until 2030. Global returns for commercial fish farming recorded by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation in 2008 totalled 33.8-million tons, worth about US$60-billion (approximately R667-billion).

Despite aquaculture’s advantages, the wild capture sector remains fishery’s biggest contributor. According to the WWF-SA, wild capture fisheries include commercial, recreational and subsistence fisheries. It estimated about 500 000 people fished recreationally in South Africa, with the value of that industry placed around R3-billion in 2011. Also, commercially caught line fish was about 16 000 tons, which placed huge pressure on those species. The conservation group said 23% of South Africa’s key commercial fish resources were over-exploited.

For Oceanwise chief executive, Liam Ryan, the best story to come out of the company is that of job creation. It employs 115 workers from impoverished areas of East London, all of whom had to learn new skills since joining the company. (Image: Industrial Development Corporation)

A regulated industry

Since the fish at Oceanwise were harvested in tanks there was no risk of escapees, said Ryan. And because they are in a protected environment, they have an advantage over those in the wild that are vulnerable to predators. Oxygen is supplemented, which means only the purest oxygen is generated. They feed on a formulated pellet that is based on natural proteins and minerals that the kabeljou need.

Since the aquaculture industry is regulated, the fish at Oceanwise have to be tagged. This serves various purposes, one of them being that a fish can be traced back to the tank from where it came. Tags can also help identify males from females.

Under government regulations, fish have to be protected from intermingling with similar breeds from other regions. Therefore, eggs and fingerlings from East London have to be harvested in the city. “When we supply fish to the market there is a code on every box and delivery note that says it comes from this facility,” said Ryan. “So the industry is quite protected and regulated.”

The University of Stellenbosch is also helping Oceanwise by banking fish DNA. This can help to determine from which parent a fish comes.

New careers and jobs

Though aquaculture is punted as the future of fishery, Ryan claims that it is still considered high risk in terms of the cost that goes into setting up a farm. The IDC’s funding of Oceanwise amounted to R22-million. But the social benefits of setting up Oceanwise in East London outweigh the costs of running the facility. Not only has the farm reduced human impact on the seas, but it has also created jobs for those desperate for an income.

Most of Oceanwise’s 115 workers came from impoverished backgrounds and entered the company unskilled. Some of them were school leavers whose hope for the future was quickly diminishing. “Most of these young people joined Oceanwise as unskilled casual labour,” said Ryan. “They were brought in to support the construction and early development of Oceanwise’s facilities.”

But their interest in learning about aquaculture, water sciences and kabeljou over the past five years has allowed the workers to carve aquaculture careers for themselves. “This is development at its best, with a life-changing impact on these young people and their families’ lives… This type of personal growth opportunity for young individuals is rare. Since it is a new industry with a need for new specialist skills, there is a greater than normal opportunity for internal promotion and career development.”