Coding for Crayfish in the time of COVID-19 and the climate emergency
Seafood is one of the most traded global commodities, so it is not surprising that the export of South Africa’s West Coast Rock Lobster (also known as lobster or crayfish) has crashed with the closure of national borders and global markets in light of the COVID-19 crisis. These closures have brought already vulnerable small-scale fishing communities to their knees in a growing sea of poverty and associated social problems.
While Coding for Crayfish was filmed during the 2019/2020 lobster season before the pandemic hit the South African shores, the Story of traditional fisher David Shoshola – and thousands of small-scale fishers in South Africa – is more relevant now than ever. The lobster value chain in South Africa epitomises the glaring contradictions inherent in our capital-intensive globalised food system. Historic over-exploitation, a failed and now slow recognition of traditional fishers’ rights, combined with strong market forces feeding an illegal industry, have resulted in a crisis in this fishery, where many have advocated for fishery and/or market closures.
Coding for Crayfish follows the efforts of fishers in a small community on the West Coast of South Africa, who have co-designed and embraced simple but integrated technologies to develop their own Community-Supported Fisheries, connecting directly with a local market, thereby re-imagining a shorter, transparent and equitable supply chain that can assist with efforts in fisheries rebuilding.
Once the traditional food for working-class and poor coastal communities, lobster has for decades been a high-value export for the industrial fisheries sector. During the apartheid years in South Africa small-scale, predominantly black fishers were not permitted to harvest and sell in their own right, but harvested for white-owned companies that exported lobster. Recreational fishers were allowed to harvest a small quantity for their own enjoyment, and for many wealthier South Africans, summer holidays are synonymous with a crayfish braai (barbeque).
Following the first democratic elections in South Africa in 1994, small-scale fishers hoped that their access to marine resources would be recognised. However, control of the lobster value chain remained largely in the hands of the established industry that centralised processing and export. In 2007, the small-scale fishers finally won the support of the Courts in forcing the Department of Fisheries to grant them an interim permit to harvest lobster, pending the finalisation of a new policy for small-scale fisheries. This interim permit system, while certainly well-intentioned, played into the hands of the industry that continued to control the processing and sale of lobster. Small-scale fishers became price-takers in a sophisticated, export-oriented fishery, while ordinary South Africans no longer had access to lobster at an affordable price.
For the past three decades, the industry has exploited the growing global appetite for lobster and over-catching became a familiar, albeit hidden, component in South Africa’s lucrative lobster exports. In the past decade, however, the lobster value chain has increasingly become entwined with the illegal abalone industry mixing in with the toxic combination of illegal drugs, weak fisheries monitoring and enforcement and high levels of corruption. Marginalised small-scale fishers have been easy prey in this environment and significant numbers have been steadily drawn into over-catching and under-recording practices that enable the export and local sale of a greater quantity than is legally recorded. There is hope that a new Small-scale Fisheries Policy for South Africa, currently being implemented, will turn the tide.
The ability to trace seafood and account for its journey ‘from hook to cook’ is a critical element in our ability to transform our food system. Without knowing where and how food is produced, we cannot carefully craft a new food system, one that values and supports sustainable sources of food, cares for the people who labour to create or harvest this food, and that strengthens human and climate health. thereby enabling communities to build resilience to pandemics and other global crises. It is towards this economy of care that ABALOBI has, since 2015, co-designed Information and Communication Technologies in the form of mobile apps and cloud-based systems with small-scale fishers.
ABALOBI is now an African-based, fisher-driven social enterprise with global reach. Our mission is to contribute towards thriving, equitable and sustainable small-scale fishing communities in South Africa and beyond, through the joint development of technology. Our approach focuses on achieving tangible milestones, driven by a suite of mobile apps, that relate to seafood traceability, fully documented fisheries, fair and transparent supply chains, and community cohesion and entrepreneurship as important precursors to launching longer-term ecological improvement actions associated with a transition towards ecological sustainability. Read about our work in South Africa and elsewhere in our 2018–2019 Impact Report, and engage with our integrated approach to socio-economic and ecological change. For a specific overview of how our organisation is playing its part during the pandemic read here for our response and here for an account of our pivot in order to secure small-scale fisher livelihoods.
Globalised food systems are now facing scrutiny in a context where no one is able to take their access to and supply of food for granted. Across the globe, consumers are increasingly having to turn to local producers and markets to source their food, and the prevalence of food insecurity is visible in the long queues of people streamed across our screens. The disruption of our food system as we have come to know it is tangible and calls for this crisis to be used to transition us to a more sustainable food system are being heard in many corners of the world. As South Africa implements its Small-scale Fisheries Policy, in line with the UN-FAO Small-scale Fisheries Guidelines, we invite you to watch David’s story here and navigate to our call to action on www.codingforcrayfish.com.
Connect with us if you are interested in our model and tech for Community- and Restaurant- Supported Fisheries.
West Coast Rock Lobster pilot
During the 2018/2019 West Coast Rock Lobster season, the pilot project was launched in order to test the ABALOBI traceability and transparency tools in the context of trade in a high-value marine resource.
The focus was on West Coast Rock Lobster, a species plagued by Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) harvest and a resource that is facing collapse. That being said, this resource also underpins the livelihoods of thousands of small-scale fishers in the Northern and Western Cape and it is critical that steps are taken to improve transparency and data collection to support the establishment and implementation of a gradual recovery plan without having to resort to a fishery closure.
In the 2018/2019 season, five small-scale fishers operating under Interim Relief Measures participated in the pilot project and connected with eleven restaurants who bought their verifiably legal West Coast Rock Lobster catch. The project was then extended to include the 2019/2020 season, during this season of the pilot, the group of participating small-scale fishers was expanded to six and the group of participating restaurants was increased to fifteen.
During the West Coast Rock Lobster pilot project the following elements were added to the existing FISHER, MONITOR and MARKETPLACE digital traceability and transparency system (as highlighted in the documentary):
- At-sea observer footage captured by GoPro and Cell-phone video was associated with ABALOBI MONITOR logs to record performance and practice at-sea.
- A Vessel Monitoring System track of each individual harvest trip was recorded and associated with ABALOBI FISHER logs to verify that harvest occurred within designated areas and that no trans-shipment occurred between near-shore and off-shore vessels, a practice that contributes significantly to the volume of IUU product on the domestic and export market.
- Weather data recorded on ABALOBI MONITOR to eliminate the likelihood of fictitious harvests being logged on days where sea conditions would obviously not have allowed for a harvest to occur.
- Capturing time-stamped images of Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries paper-based Landing Slips as well as Harbour Fees Receipt on the ABALOBI FISHER log for each harvest, this serves as an additional external verification process and enables these physical documents to become relevant in real-time.
- Additional tracking of ABALOBI MARKETPLACE restaurant delivery jobs using our logistics platform route validation function, a platform used to calculate driver distance travelled so that adequate compensation for driving costs can be calculated.
- A tamper-proof sealing tape used on all individually tagged cooler boxes used for transport of the species to ensure that there is a visual verification that can be conducted by chefs receiving their West Coast Rock Lobster order.
All the above measures were co-designed with the participating fishers and regarded as practical steps that could be implemented at scale if the pilot succeeds. In addition to the above processes being deployed to validate that verifiably legal catch was landed, recorded, and delivered, the additional step of engaging chefs and restaurants on the concept of the pilot was critical. Transforming the way in which the local market engages with West Coast Rock Lobster is key if the momentum of this project is to be maintained as it scales to include an increasing number of small-scale fishers and chefs/restaurants.
To achieve this, the next step for participating restaurants will be that, in the third season of the pilot, they will be asked to report on the internal systems that they utilise to reconcile West Coast Rock Lobster purchased against dishes served containing the species. Although this is already tracked through the number of ABALOBI From Hook To Cook QR Code scans by restaurant patrons, this additional validation step will close the loop from fisher to final consumer in a robust, integrated and interconnected traceability system for this high-value seafood commodity.