Although fishing vessels operate out of all southern African ports, most of the southern African fishing industry is based at ports along the west coast from Walvis Bay in Namibia to Hout Bay near Cape Town, and also operate from Kalk Bay on False Bay, Hermanus and Gansbaai on the southern Cape coast. (See also Section 11.4.3 in the Grade 11 section of this website.) Although many of the fishing vessels operate close to shore, some go further to the Agulhas Bank (south of Cape Agulhas) and some even venture much further  into teh Southern Ocean; others go westwards towards South America.

The waters around the South African islands, Marion Island and Prince Edward Island, about 1500 nautical miles south of Port Elizabeth, are also rich in fish; however, their distance from South Africa places them beyond the range of most South African fishing vessels.


A typical west coast fishing vessel. Many are built in small shipyards in Saldanha Bay and Cape Town.  Photograph : Brian Ingpen


Crewing the fishing fleets

Most of the tiny fishing boats that put to sea from the old Dutch colony at the Cape had owner-skippers, a situation that continues for many of the west coast and Cape-based fishing vessels that range in size from small dinghies to purse-seine fishing boats. However, the industry has become more structured and sophisticated as large companies – operating large trawlers and/or large fleets of smaller vessels (e.g. snoek boats, or small tuna vessels) – now dominate the industry.

The upgrading of the industry has brought the need for more structured training systems, a move that has been led by the South African Maritime Safety Authority who has introduced formal qualifications for fishing vessel crews in line with international requirements. The authorities were alarmed by the relatively large number of fishing vessel crews who were lost at sea or injured on aboard due to accidents. Apart from the introduction of more formal courses that lead to recognized qualifications, SAMSA also had a safety campaign in the fishing industry, encouraging a more awareness of the need for safe practice on fishing vessels.

The industry provides work for thousands of people in South Africa, from the masters and chief engineers of large “fish factory vessels” (that process the catch and even pack the fish ready for sale) to those who simply catch the fish by handline from small craft. In addition, the industry also requires large numbers of people working ashore in the fish processing plants (fish canneries, fishmeal factories, fish packaging and freezing). However, because of overfishing and more automation both on the trawlers and ashore in the factories, the number of people employed in the fishing industry has declined. This has resulted in significant numbers of unemployed people in the fishing towns of the west coast.