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  1. 1. www.getaway.co.za 57 Trouble brewing on the West Coast At some point in just about any seaside holiday there’s a desire to splash out on a lekker kreef dinner, but recent disquiet in the industry may make it a little harder to swallow. By Cameron Ewart-Smith. Photographs by Cheryl-Samantha Owen. ROCK LOBSTER 56 GETAWAY AUGUST 2013
  2. 2. www.getaway.co.za 5958 GETAWAY AUGUST 2013 ROCK LOBSTER A chill wind whipped across the waves, seeking mischief with the crests. It tossed spray into the air from the bow of our little lobster boat and slapped a loose rope against the derrick with a tinny ting-ting-ting; not satisfied, it sneaked through the oilskins of the crew as they gathered to raise the first trap of the day. Hardened by a lifetime at sea, the crew was too intent on a small green buoy floating in the waves to mind the cold wind. While the skipper danced the boat closer, the boson nonchalantly raised an arm to indicate the direction of the line that linked the bobbing marker with the lobster trap on the reef below. A small grappling hook sailed through the air, snagging the line, and we began to pull. So begins the journey to your plate of one of the world’s great epicurean pleas- ures – lobster, or more accurately on the west coast of South Africa, rock lobster. Locals call them kreef, but whichever name you choose, it’s synonymous with posh. It’s what you serve when you’re putting on a show or trying to impress. It’s sought after for high-status Japanese weddings and restaurant menus list it as SQ. The world over, it’s expensive and decadent and delicious … and in trouble. A LONG-ACQUIRED TASTE By all accounts, the gastronomic infatu- ation with lobsters has been long and capricious. Evidence suggests that both ancient Roman and Greek civilisations enjoyed these shellfish and they make an appearance in writings dating back to Tudor times in Britain. However, they weren’t always celebrated. There are many reports that the original settlers in Maine on the USA’s east coast consid- ered lobster to be poor man’s grub and there’s anecdotal evidence suggesting it was of little gastronomic importance in the early days of the Cape as well (we know rock lobsters were crushed and used as fertiliser during this period). Early settlers aside, archaeological evidence clearly shows the average size of lobsters along the South African coast today is very different to what they were. ‘If one examines the 2000- year-old shell middens along the coast, the average size of the animals the strandlopers were catching was enor- mous. Possibly as much as double the average we see today,’ Professor George Branch of the University of Cape Town told me over coffee in Kalk Bay, a small harbour town complete with a number of lobster boats. Professor Branch is no stranger to rock lobsters and has been enjoying them since he was a young student catching his quota as often as possible through the season (five a day back then). He’s arguably the country’s pre-eminent marine biologist, despite nearing the end of his career, and is one of the longest-standing members of the rock lobster scientific working group that gathers each year to assess the health of the West Coast rock lobster stock and set quotas for the season ahead. Unfortunately, this group is becoming increasingly concerned. ‘One of the great strengths of South Africa’s rock lobster fishery is the way that it has been managed,’ says Profes- sor Branch. ‘And South Africa is a world leader in the co-management practices we’re following.’ Co-management is a complex assessment process in which all parties involved in catching and ex- ploiting rock lobster – large commercial fishers, small-scale fishers, subsistence Whichever name you choose, lobster is synonymous with posh. It’s expensive and decadent and delicious … and in trouble. PREVIOUS SPREAD: A commercial West Coast rock lobster fishing boat, the James Archer, leaves Saldanha Bay s harbour before the break of dawn, the lights of the town flashing in the distance. LEFT: After winching up a trap from the Atlantic s seabed, a crewman from the James Archer releases a full catch of lobsters. LOBSTER, CRAYFISH, KREEF Only lobsters with real claws such as those found off the east coast of North America and in Europe should be called ‘lobster’, and people in the know I spoke to looked decidedly uncomfortable every time I used the name ‘crayfish’, which is likely bor- rowed from ‘crawfish’ in reference to the fresh-water relatives enjoyed in America’s deep south. While they’re fondly referred to locally as kreef or crays, officially they should be called West Coast rock lobster.
  3. 3. www.getaway.co.za 6160 GETAWAY AUGUST 2013 ROCK LOBSTER or relief fishers, recreational fishers and scientists – are consulted when deciding on how many tons can be caught, also called total allowable catch (TAC). This group is best placed to prescribe how many lobsters may be taken without destroying the resource for future gener- ations. It uses data from the rock lobster fishers themselves, growth rate meas- urements of animals and carefully designed, scientific survey catches. It was on one such annual cruise that I sought out Danie Botha, one of the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries’ (Daff) foot soldiers researching West Coast rock lobster. ‘The thing to realise is that the re- source is heavily depleted,’ Danie said as he measured lobsters with practised hands. ‘It’s currently estimated that num- bers of rock lobster on the West Coast are perilously low at only three percent of their original pre-exploitation or pristine levels.’ That realisation and concerns of the long-term viability of this valuable fishery – rock lobster alone contributed some R550 million to the Western Cape in the 2011-2012 season – has resulted in an ambitious plan to rebuild the stocks. The plan calls for a reduction in the tonnage of rock lobster that could be caught and predictably resulted in mut- terings within the industry. Responding to pressure, the minister of Fisheries’ office bypassed scientific best practice and decided to leave the allowed catch unchanged for the 2013 season. Then all hell broke loose, with accusations and counter accusations flying between government, scientists, journalists and concerned independent observers. Like any good fight, cooler heads prevailed after the dust settled and minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson, claiming she’d been unaware of the actions of her office’s minions, sensibly confirmed the required reductions in the allowed catch would be made in 2014. While damage has been done, it’s not irreversible. WHAT’S THE CATCH? The spat hasn’t gone entirely unnoticed. Marine conservationists round the world are becoming increasingly concerned with the state of the world’s fish stocks and management disputes such as this. Enter the Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative (Sassi). You’ve proba- bly heard of Sassi, but for those who haven’t, this organisation under the aus- pices of the World Wild Fund for Nature – South Africa (WWF-SA) has embarked on a public awareness campaign that is a world first. It has identified fish through a process of colour coding that allows environmentally aware consumers to make more informed purchasing deci- sions: species on the red list are threat- ened and consumers are encourage not to eat them; orange indicates a fish that is of some concern (think twice about buying); and green fish are well managed and can be enjoyed with a clear con- science (best choice). Restaurants in par- ticular have taken to the Sassi system and these days any responsible (possibly LEFT, CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: John Kirkpatrick pulls up a juicy haul of West Coast rock lobsters from his yellow kayak off Kommetjie. He usually waits about 20 minutes before pulling up the trap, but it s always a gamble as to whether or not the lobsters have taken the bait; a SANParks law enforcement official inspects the permit of a recreational fisher. The ongoing and rampant poaching presents a big challenge to the sustainable utilisation of lobster stock; law enforcement confiscated more than 300 illegally caught West Coast rock lobsters, which were found in a poacher s vehicle. The lobsters are bagged and frozen in the Saldanha Bay police station and will be used as evidence in court; size matters and recreational fishers must ensure the lobsters they catch have grown to at least 80mm and aren t laden with eggs. WHAT’S REALLY GOING ON DOWN THERE? The unfolding resource-management drama may well be snagging the headlines, but there are also fascinating biological changes afoot in the oceans washing the shores of the Cape West Coast, according to marine biologist Professor George Branch. ‘For a number of years now two overarching patterns have emerged in the biology of rock lobsters: they aren’t growing as fast as they used to and there have been rapid changes in their distribution, which represents a migration south and along the coast east of Cape Point towards Cape Hangklip. These movements are having dramatic ecosystem-level impacts on the underwater environments,’ says Branch. In all likelihood the shifts are in response to a combination of global climate change and overfishing. CATCH YOUR OWN Hopefully changes to the legislation shouldn’t affect recreational fishers too much. You’ll still have to purchase a permit from your local post office and abide by the current rules. For example, diving is allowed only on weekends, unless otherwise specified during season (usually November to April but watch the daily press for confirmation). You may not catch in the specified marine reserves along the coast nor in the rock lobster sanctuary that encompasses all of Table Bay. The best places to catch rock lobster are Cape Hang- klip, Cape Point Reserve (additional permits are re- quired from SANParks) and Elands Bay (stay at Elands Bay Guesthouse, www. elandsbayguesthouse.co.za).
  4. 4. www.getaway.co.za 6362 GETAWAY AUGUST 2013 ROCK LOBSTER that should read decent) eatery and en- vironmentally conscious supermarket complies with its recommendations. Sassi recently changed its assessment of West Coast rock lobster from green to orange and I understand it very nearly switched all the way to red. ‘We support science-based management decisions that are participatory and consultative,’ says Janine Basson, WWF-SA’s Sassi Manager: Consumer Awareness and Outreach. ‘Until now rock lobster has been well managed, but we’ve become increasingly worried about its status following the recent debacle over quotas, which is inherently a departure from the best management practices, the worryingly low numbers compared to estimates of what the pristine en- vironment would have contained and the ongoing, rampant poaching that is happening along the coast.’ In evaluating its decision to down- grade rock lobsters to orange (from green) Sassi consulted widely with gov- ernment, social scientists, the fishing industry and marine scientists to ensure the correct outcome was reached. ‘Critically, one thing consumers need to know is that they can have a dramatic say in the way we manage fragile re- sources such as rock lobster – their purchasing decisions have direct impacts on the decision-makers,’ says Basson. However, it’s a long way from the corporate boardrooms to the fishing fleet that sets out each morning into the wilds of the Atlantic in search of their catch. The relentless wind on board the research cruise eventually drove me off the deck and into the small cabin behind the wheelhouse. And as I watched the crew huddling out of the elements in the forecastle sharing a cigarette I wondered what these changes mean for them and VISIT THE WEST COAST The best season to visit the West Coast is spring, when the famous flowers put on a show that’s widely acknowledged as one of the world’s great botanical spectacles. Popular coastal spots to stay include Elands Bay (take your surfboard and wetsuit), Tietiesbaai (great for camping) and Paternoster, which is well suited to laid-back family weekends. To find accommodation in these towns – or anywhere else along the West Cost – visit accommodation.getaway.co.za. EAT HERE Sassi leaves it up to consumers to decide on how sustainability conscious they wish to be. For information on the status of any fish, download the Sassi app for your smartphone or send the name of the fish as a text message to the number 079-499-8795 and you’ll get a prompt response telling you whether to tuck in, think twice or avoid altogether. A number of restaurants on the West Coast specialise in rock lobster. For a relaxed, family meal out, try Muisbosskerm (tel 027-432-1017) near Lambert’s Bay, about three hours from Cape Town. Closer to the Mother City is Die Strandloper on the beach near Langebaan (tel 022-772-2490) and Paternoster has a number of good restaurants – I recommend Gaaitjie (tel 022-752-2242), which is about as close to the sea as you can get. In Cape Town, try OYO Restaurant and Cocktail Bar (tel 021-419-6677) well known in the V&A Waterfront for its speciality: lobster lunch. indeed communities along the entire West Coast. Will local markets eschew South African lobsters? And what of export markets, will they be spooked into sourcing less threatened stocks? It’s too early to tell. But this is kreef we’re talking about. Kreef, one of the iconic threads that runs the length of the West Coast. Hopefully, its not an ill wind that’s sending shivers through the industry… LEFT: On New Year s morning a free-diver hand caught his quota of West Coast rock lobsters; by sunset they were sizzling on a braai overlooking Smitswinkel Bay. BELOW: Chef Craig Peterson entices customers with a plate of fine rock lobster cuisine at OYO Restaurant in Cape Town s V&A Waterfront. BELOW RIGHT: Living West Coast rock lobsters await their fate in Cape Town Fish Market s tank. Diners who choose lobster are pre- sented with a price-tagged (alive) lobster. If the weight and price are agreeable, the crustacean is marched off to the kitchen (www.ctfm.co.za).

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