Text and photographs by International League of Conservation Photographers Fellow Cheryl-Samantha Owen
“It is currently estimated that numbers of rock lobster on the West Coast of South Africa are perilously low, at only three percent of their original pre-exploitation or pristine levels.”
At 4:35 in the morning the faint glow of dawn backlit the flickering of a lighthouse beam, and slowly Saldanha bay slipped further away, disappearing in the mist. The bitter wind whipped Atlantic sea spray across the rolling deck as I clung to my tripod and camera, giving one hand to a frenzied rope, and ignoring the skipper’s calls for me to retreat to the sheltered cabin. It was the beginning of a photography shoot aboard a little West Coast rock lobster fishing boat on South Africa’s coast.
For more than 12 hours I stood and slid alongside the oilskin-clad crew of hardened fishermen, documenting the journey of the West Coast rock lobster from the rocky seabed to your fine bone china plate. Known as crayfish, or more affectionately as ‘kreef’ to the locals, they did not evolve with rubber bands on a bed of ice or soaking in warm butter – surprising though this may be to some. There is far more to these crustaceans than meets the fishmonger’s slab or restaurant plate, and as pricey, delicious, and indulgent as they are … they are in hot water. It is currently estimated that numbers of rock lobster on the West Coast of South Africa are perilously low, at only three percent of their original pre-exploitation or pristine levels.
Over-fishing and poaching has damaged the stock, but its demise is not irreversible. Fortunately, a rock lobster scientific working group has been gathering data each year to assess the health of the West Coast rock lobster stock and set quotas for each season ahead. Based on the recommendations of these scientists, an ambitious plan to rebuild the stocks has been launched, which calls for a reduction in the total allowable catch of rock lobster.
But, the management plan will only work if the advice of scientists is taken and the quotas are indeed lowered in accordance to the equations. After bowing to pressure from the fishing industry, the South African minister of Fisheries’ office jeopardized the recovery of the stock by refusing to lower the total catch quota for the 2012 / 2013 season. Fortunately and much to the relief of marine conservationists worldwide, reductions in the current season’s allowed catch were made in line with the plan.
Another saving grace for the kreef occurred last year, following the disappointment of the unchanged quota, when the Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative (SASSI) downgraded the rock lobster’s status from green (go ahead – best choice) to orange (think twice about buying this species please). This public awareness campaign, run by the World Wide Fund for nature (WWF) – South Africa, educates consumers about the status of seafood and guides them in making the better choice. Increasingly, all parties involved, including the government, fishing industry, restaurant and supermarket businesses are feeling the public’s push towards managing our fragile natural resources sustainably.
According to Professor George Branch of the University of Cape Town and a member of the rock lobster scientific working group, the animals caught 2,000 years ago were ‘possibly as much as double the average size we see today.’ The recreational fishermen at the kreef (and surfing) hotspot of Kommetijie, outside of Cape Town, also lamented to me about the days of no quotas and much larger animals caught for the ‘braai’ or bbq.
Lobsters are known to play a crucial role in maintaining balance beneath the sea, and as I anchored myself in the swaying kelp forest to photograph a full trap being hauled up to the kayak above, I wondered what the end of lobster would mean to this unique ecosystem. Similarly, on board the James Archer, after the last trap was set and I photographed the crew huddled around a shared cigarette, I wondered what the end of the iconic kreef would mean to them and the culture of the West Coast. Kreef only narrowly missed sliding on to SASSI’s red list. Perhaps at the opening and closing of each season we should be reminded of just how delicate this delicacy really is.