* All information below has been gathered from Smoothhound and Soupfin shark stock assessment data supplied by DEFF in 2019.
The Demersal Shark Longline (DSL) fishery fishes by means of using longlines. This means hundreds of baited hooks are set on longlines that are spread over an area and are left to “soak” on the bottom of the sea floor. The target species are Smoothhound and Soupfin sharks and the fishing takes place along the inshore coastal areas of the eastern South African coastline.
The fishery for Smoothhound shark began in the 1990s. In 2005, the DSL became the main contributor for Smoothhound shark fishing and was already by then catching up to 5 times the amount of all other fisheries combined.
According to the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF), the Smoothhound shark is one of the top 5 most valuable shark species in South Africa.
The Soupfin shark is also according to DEFF, one of the top 5 most valuable shark species in South Africa and the DSL makes up 20% of total contributed fishing effort for this species. The shoaling behaviour of this species makes it susceptible to high fishing mortality.
Despite the documented value of both these shark species, no Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) has ever been done on the DSL fishery, there are no restrictions on the fishery and there have never been any observers on any DSL vessels. This is despite the fact that on the DSL permit document it states “a dedicated observer programme is essential for the DSL Fishery”.
According to a 2019 DEFF scientific assessment of the Smoothhound and Soupfin sharks, both species are in a state of collapse. Since 2011 scientist within DEFF have been making recommendations to be implemented in order to keep this fishery sustainable. To date their management have ignored all these recommendations.
In South Africa, historically there had been 6 Demersal Shark Longline permits issued and the owners had initially only fished these permits to supplement their other catches in hard times.
Since 2015, three permit holders began to intensely fish this resource as they had found a new market – Australia. This was to meet the Australian demand for Gummy shark (called Smoothhound in South Africa) used in their Fish and Chips. These same 3 vessels have perfected how, when and where to target the Smoothhound and Soupfin sharks.
Although a permit is required to operate, the DSL fishery in South Africa has been allowed to operate as follows:
- No restrictions on total allowable catch
- No size limits.
- No observers on board
So why is this fishery so damaging?
In a nutshell:
- The fishing effort is extremely localized and takes place over a 600km stretch between Port Elizabeth and Cape Agulhas. When the vessels move into an area they fish it intensely for up to 4 or 5 days. Effectively they act as a vacuum cleaner and remove all the sharks in this particular area before moving onto the next area to clean out.
- The fishery is not being managed properly according to scientific information and regulations are not being enforced. As such the populations of the target species of both Smoothhound and Soupfin sharks are in a state of collapse due to this fishing pressure. This is confirmed by the 2019 DEFF assessments and the situation is worsening.
- The hooks are indiscriminate and CITES-protected species are also being caught and killed. The DSL vessel operate in areas of spatial habitat overlap between Smoothhound and Smooth Hammerhead sharks, making the Hammerheads particularly vulnerable.
- DSL vessels have been caught fishing illegally in Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and yet they are still being allowed to continue fishing.
- DSL vessels target fishing areas alongside MPAs and as there is no buffer zone, animals moving in and out of these boundary areas are extremely susceptible to being caught thus nullifying the protection of the MPAs. Scientific study on the importance of buffer zones for shark:
The National Plan of Action for Sharks (NPOA-Sharks) of which South Africa is a signatory, states that that a precautionary approach needs to be adopted in the following cases where there is a cause for concern:
- When there is stock depletion
- When high numbers of protected species are being killed
- Where there are aggregation sites for juvenile sharks, especially of protected species
The DSL fishery ticks every single one of these black boxes and yet regulations have not been put in place and the DSL fishery continues…
The problem here is clear. The DSL fishery is not being managed sustainably and this is having a catastrophic effect on Smoothhound and Soupfin sharks, as well as the entire inshore coastal ecosystem. It will therefore have an impact on the medium- and long-term sustainability of this same fishery but also other fisheries.
There are just three vessels that are intensively fishing their DSL permits. If this fishery was to be closed, they could easily be absorbed into other unsubscribed fisheries such as Tuna and Swordfish.
In 2013-2014 two of the three DSL vessels were not able to fish due to having contravened permit regulations. During this time, the catch of Smoothhound sharks was greatly reduced, dropping by nearly 200 tons in that period. This is yet another example of how focused and damaging this fishery is. But, it also shows that this problem can be fixed IF measures are taken.