Fishing companies and NGOs call for moratorium on bulk sediment seabed mining in South Africa


Kim Cloete | Mining Weekly | 13 October 2016

The Responsible Fisheries Alliance (RFA), which comprises five major fishing companies and two nongovernmental organisations, is calling for a moratorium on all new and existing prospecting and mining applications related to bulk sediment seabed mining.

This follows the release of a new report commissioned by the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), which found that prospecting rights granted to three phosphate mining companies over the past five years are in an area that overlaps with a significant part of South Africa’s largest fisheries.

Therefore, RFA members The World Wide Fund for Nature –South Africa and BirdLife South Africa, together with Irvin & Johnson, the Oceana Group, Sea Harvest, Viking Fishing and Pioneer Fishing, have made the call to halt the mining of phosphate minerals, which are dredged from the ocean floor and used for fertiliser.

The RFA believes that, in the absence of sufficient research on the potential impacts of bulk sediment seabed mining, there is no option but a moratorium. It also highlights that a lack of information on the environmental impact of bulk seabed mineral extraction has prompted authorities to enforce moratoria on the practice in Namibia, Australia and New Zealand.

The RFA has, therefore, urged government to follow international best practice and to adopt a precautionary approach in South Africa, adding that seabed mining should not be allowed until the government has done an in-depth study and analysis of the overlap between fishery grounds and prospecting application areas. Environmental assessments also need to be undertaken.

Bulk sediment seabed mining involves dredging and removing sediment on the sea floor, which could permanently destroy marine habitats and the breeding, spawning and feeding areas of fish stocks.

Research undertaken by the University of Cape Town’s (UCT‘s) Environmental Policy Research Unit, under the aegis of the CER, has found that the prospecting areas and proposed drill sites coincide with 77% of the offshore hake trawl footprint and one of the primary fishing grounds of the small pelagic fishery.

South Africa’s fishing industry has a wholesale value of between R6-billion and R8-billion. In 2015, exports of fish products generated R5.3-billion in revenue for the country.

The commercial fishing industry creates about 27 000 direct and 100 000 indirect jobs in South Africa. In contrast, the CER says bulk marine sediment mining would create only 40 to 50 jobs per mining vessel, of which many are temporary. 

Similarly, a proposed marine phosphate mining project in Namibia – Sandpiper – which aimed to dredge 5.5-million tons of sediment a year, would have only provided about 135 permanent jobs.

While prospecting licence holders argue that there is an impending shortage of phosphate for agricultural processes, the RFA says an additional study by UCT indicates that there is no shortage in South Africa.

“There is good reason to believe that the phosphate mined [will be] a huge cost to South African oceans [and] will simply be exported for profit,” said coalition spokesperson Saul Roux.

“The health of our country, people and environment and, therefore, our economy, depends on the health of the ocean. The potential risks of bulk marine sediment mining to our marine ecosystems and renewable industries, such as fishing, are simply too great. The proposal to dredge our seabed should not be allowed to proceed unchecked,” said Roux.

The group made its call during National Marine Week, which ran from October 10 to 14. 

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