The St Helena Commercial Fishermen’s Association (SHCFA) has been asking questions about what they describe as a “wholly incorrect” letter written by SHG’s preferred investor for St Helena’s fisheries – PQ Trading STH (Pty) Ltd.
The SHCFA says the letter, which appeared in the April 2 Sentinel, made several strong accusations against local fishermen.
PQ Trading’s directors are Johan-Marais Bezuidenhout and Johann Bezuidenhout, both from South Africa.
In the April 23 Sentinel, the SHCFA published a response to the letter. Last week, Julie Thomas, Vice Chair of the SHCFA and IPNLF Project Manager, and Beth Taylor, Secretary and Communications Officer for the SHCFA and Head of National Trust Marine, came into SAMS to elaborate on the response.
The SHCFA have requested that PQ Trading share the basis on which they made statements about local fishermen “overfishing juvenile tuna fish and denting the live bait resource severely.”
Julie said she did not know how PQ could make such a statement when the key piece of research from the Centre for Environment, Fisheries & Aquaculture Science (CEFAS) was, at the time of the statement, not yet finished (Julie said the report was only shared with SHG last week).
“The tuna tagging programme[…] report regarding tuna and bait from CEFAS was due on March 31, but the reports were delayed due to illnesses and Covid-19,” Julie said.
Julie however said she was aware of “certain individuals in the realms of SHG” who had previously made statements similar to those that were in the letter.
“Somebody did share a certain amount of this information with the investors, but it is not founded or supported by the science, as far as we know,” she said.
Julie also said there was “no scientific data” that shows tuna spawn in the waters around St Helena.
She said the information shared to date by the SHG Marine Team and CEFAS presented little evidence to suggest that large percentages of tuna fish travel between inshore waters and the seamounts. Julie hoped the highly anticipated CEFAS report would shed further light.
Regarding bait, Julie said that although bait-fishing is slow at times, this should not be misconstrued as fishers “denting the bait stocks.”
According to Julie, bait fish will venture from the usual inshore bait grounds when temperatures change; but when this annual cycle is complete, they return in abundance.
Julie and Beth said the SHCFA is concerned that, based on dates given in the letter, SHG might have agreed with PQ Trading to repair the fish factory infrastructure even before it had been announced that PQ Trading was the preferred bidder.
“That was another red flag for us,” Beth said. “How on earth could such a commitment allegedly be made prior to the tender/bidding process closing, and[…] why wasn’t that proposal given to all bidders?”
Julie said she is concerned that PQ’s letter showed focus only on integrating the offshore fishing business, and not the inshore, into their proposal.
Offshore fishing represents a small number of the local fleet. If inshore fishers were not taken into consideration Julie said it could mean the majority of fishers being excluded.
Julie also said she fears fishermen are being put in a position where they will be forced into working with the investors despite many fishermen being unhappy with the statements in the letter. This is because currently, the majority of full-time fishers are unable to make a steady income.
Since SHG closed the island’s only fish-processing factory in January, the factory has been operated by SHG. SHG put in place restrictions to limit catches and is only offering processing and packaging of fresh fish for the local market (with no freezer capabilities). This has removed the fishermen’s ability to land fish in abundance during the seasonal months, which is “proving to be challenging and frustrating.”
“For decades, fishermen have utilised the seasonal months to catch fish in abundance to secure their income for the off-season,” Julie said. “But this approach cannot be taken this year due to limitations placed on them, without the availability of the export markets.”
Julie feared this situation could force fishers who are currently struggling into joining PQ Trading, not because it is their preferred option but simply so they could make a living.
“The preferred bidders are starting to look attractive to some fishers,” Julie said. “Was this current restrictive situation introduced (sales for local market only) to make it so bad that fishers would have no choice but to join forces with the investors?”
Julie said the SHCFA’s questions, which are “based on comments made publicly in the papers by the investors,” have been put to SHG.
No SHG officials are meeting with the SHCFA or giving any answers due to a non-disclosure agreement signed with the preferred investor.
“These are the questions we are putting to SHG and we can’t get answers,” Julie said.
“Of course we don’t want to spend hours and hours responding to false and misleading allegations,” Beth said. “But I will stay up to the early hours if I have to, if statements are made that are damaging to the reputation of the people that are actually trying to obtain information to know that their livelihood is safe, secure and supported.”