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Photographing the End of the Kreef

Text and photographs by International League of Conservation Photographers Fellow Cheryl-Samantha Owen
www.samowenphotography.com

“It is currently estimated that numbers of rock lobster on the West Coast of South Africa are perilously low, at only three percent of their original pre-exploitation or pristine levels.”

At 4:35 in the morning the faint glow of dawn backlit the flickering of a lighthouse beam, and slowly Saldanha bay slipped further away, disappearing in the mist. The bitter wind whipped Atlantic sea spray across the rolling deck as I clung to my tripod and camera, giving one hand to a frenzied rope, and ignoring the skipper’s calls for me to retreat to the sheltered cabin. It was the beginning of a photography shoot aboard a little West Coast rock lobster fishing boat on South Africa’s coast.

A West coast rock lobster (Jasus lalandii) fishing boat (James Archer) leaves the Saldanha Bay harbour before the break of dawn. The lights of the town and the lighthouse flash on the horizon. Saldanha Bay, Western Cape, South Africa
A West coast rock lobster (Jasus lalandii) fishing boat (James Archer) leaves the Saldanha Bay harbour before the break of dawn. The lights of the town and the lighthouse flash on the horizon. Saldanha Bay, Western Cape, South Africa
Saldanha Bay, St. Helena Bay, South Africa. The crew of the James Archer (Oceana commercial fisheries) West coast rock lobster (Jasus lalandii) fishing boat pull up a lobster trap. Fisherman: J. van der Heerver. In smaller boats lobster traps are pulled up by hand, but  winches on the bigger commercial boats help haul up the large traps. A scientist (Danie van Zyl) from the South African Department of Agriculture Forestry & Fisheries (DAFF) measures and records the catch annually as part of Inshore Resources Research program.
Saldanha Bay, St. Helena Bay, South Africa. The crew of the James Archer (Oceana commercial fisheries) West coast rock lobster (Jasus lalandii) fishing boat pull up a lobster trap. Fisherman: J. van der Heerver. In smaller boats lobster traps are pulled up by hand, but winches on the bigger commercial boats help haul up the large traps. A scientist (Danie van Zyl) from the South African Department of Agriculture Forestry & Fisheries (DAFF) measures and records the catch annually as part of Inshore Resources Research program.

For more than 12 hours I stood and slid alongside the oilskin-clad crew of hardened fishermen, documenting the journey of the West Coast rock lobster from the rocky seabed to your fine bone china plate. Known as crayfish, or more affectionately as ‘kreef’ to the locals, they did not evolve with rubber bands on a bed of ice or soaking in warm butter – surprising though this may be to some. There is far more to these crustaceans than meets the fishmonger’s slab or restaurant plate, and as pricey, delicious, and indulgent as they are … they are in hot water. It is currently estimated that numbers of rock lobster on the West Coast of South Africa are perilously low, at only three percent of their original pre-exploitation or pristine levels.

Fishermen work on a commercial boat fishing for West coast rock lobsters (Jasus lalandii). This lobster trap is pulled out of the water laden with lobster. Fishermen open the bottom of the trap by releasing a string and allowing the lobsters to drop into the crates below. Saldanha Bay, Western Cape, South Africa
Fishermen work on a commercial boat fishing for West coast rock lobsters (Jasus lalandii). This lobster trap is pulled out of the water laden with lobster. Fishermen open the bottom of the trap by releasing a string and allowing the lobsters to drop into the crates below. Saldanha Bay, Western Cape, South Africa
West coast rock lobster (Jasus lalandii). Recreational fishing in a sea kayak for West coast rock lobster (WCRL). A hoop net or trap is lowered onto the sea floor or kelp bed with a pouch of bait (sardines or pilchards) attached. The fisher usually waits about 20 minutes before pulling up the trap. Kommetjie, Western Cape, South Africa
West coast rock lobster (Jasus lalandii). Recreational fishing in a sea kayak for West coast rock lobster (WCRL). A hoop net or trap is lowered onto the sea floor or kelp bed with a pouch of bait (sardines or pilchards) attached. The fisher usually waits about 20 minutes before pulling up the trap. Kommetjie, Western Cape, South Africa

Over-fishing and poaching has damaged the stock, but its demise is not irreversible. Fortunately, a rock lobster scientific working group has been gathering data each year to assess the health of the West Coast rock lobster stock and set quotas for each season ahead. Based on the recommendations of these scientists, an ambitious plan to rebuild the stocks has been launched, which calls for a reduction in the total allowable catch of rock lobster.

But, the management plan will only work if the advice of scientists is taken and the quotas are indeed lowered in accordance to the equations. After bowing to pressure from the fishing industry, the South African minister of Fisheries’ office jeopardized the recovery of the stock by refusing to lower the total catch quota for the 2012 / 2013 season. Fortunately and much to the relief of marine conservationists worldwide, reductions in the current season’s allowed catch were made in line with the plan.

A west coast rock lobsters (Jasus lalandii) is measured by a South African National Parks (SanParks) inspector to ensure that it meets the minimum catch size. For recreational fishers the bag limit for the 2012-2013 catch season is set at four West Coast rock lobsters per person per day (or only on weekends depending on the dates) and the size restriction is 80mm carapace length.
A west coast rock lobsters (Jasus lalandii) is measured by a South African National Parks (SanParks) inspector to ensure that it meets the minimum catch size. For recreational fishers the bag limit for the 2012-2013 catch season is set at four West Coast rock lobsters per person per day (or only on weekends depending on the dates) and the size restriction is 80mm carapace length.
West coast rock lobsters (Jasus lalandii). Recreational fishers and poachers catch West coast rock lobsters by hand by free diving in the kelp forests off the rocky shore. The 2012-2013 quota for recreational fishers is 4 lobsters a day (only on weekends - during the end of the fishing/ catch season). The size restriction is 80mm carapace length. However, poaching is a problem and lobsters are quickly put in bags and passed on to others standing by before officials have checked the number caught.
West coast rock lobsters (Jasus lalandii). Recreational fishers and poachers catch West coast rock lobsters by hand by free diving in the kelp forests off the rocky shore. The 2012-2013 quota for recreational fishers is 4 lobsters a day (only on weekends – during the end of the fishing/ catch season). The size restriction is 80mm carapace length. However, poaching is a problem and lobsters are quickly put in bags and passed on to others standing by before officials have checked the number caught.

Another saving grace for the kreef occurred last year, following the disappointment of the unchanged quota, when the Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative (SASSI) downgraded the rock lobster’s status from green (go ahead – best choice) to orange (think twice about buying this species please). This public awareness campaign, run by the World Wide Fund for nature (WWF) – South Africa, educates consumers about the status of seafood and guides them in making the better choice. Increasingly, all parties involved, including the government, fishing industry, restaurant and supermarket businesses are feeling the public’s push towards managing our fragile natural resources sustainably.

West coast rock lobsters (Jasus lalandii) are bagged and then frozen in the Saldanha Bay police station. They will be used as evidence against the poachers in court. Law enforcement found this entire load of over 300 lobsters in one poacher's car. All the lobsters were illegally caught by poachers. Saldanha Bay, Western Cape, South Africa
West coast rock lobsters (Jasus lalandii) are bagged and then frozen in the Saldanha Bay police station. They will be used as evidence against the poachers in court. Law enforcement found this entire load of over 300 lobsters in one poacher’s car. All the lobsters were illegally caught by poachers. Saldanha Bay, Western Cape, South Africa
A geneticist at the University of Stellenbosch holds a vial of West Coast Rock Lobster DNA. He is studying the population dynamics of the WCRL in an effort to learn more about rebuilding stocks.
A geneticist at the University of Stellenbosch holds a vial of West Coast Rock Lobster DNA. He is studying the population dynamics of the WCRL in an effort to learn more about rebuilding stocks.

According to Professor George Branch of the University of Cape Town and a member of the rock lobster scientific working group, the animals caught 2,000 years ago were ‘possibly as much as double the average size we see today.’ The recreational fishermen at the kreef (and surfing) hotspot of Kommetijie, outside of Cape Town, also lamented to me about the days of no quotas and much larger animals caught for the ‘braai’ or bbq.

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West coast rock lobsters (Jasus lalandii), which were hand caught by freedivers (snorkelers) in the morning are being cooked on a bbq over looking the ocean and beach at Smitzwinkel bay (near Cape Point), Western Cape, South Africa. During lobster catching season west coast rock lobsters are a big part of the social culture - both catching and eating them.
West coast rock lobsters (Jasus lalandii), which were hand caught by freedivers (snorkelers) in the morning are being cooked on a bbq over looking the ocean and beach at Smitzwinkel bay (near Cape Point), Western Cape, South Africa. During lobster catching season west coast rock lobsters are a big part of the social culture – both catching and eating them.
Hand caught by a recreational free diver, a living West coast rock lobster (Jasus lalandii) is put in a net and taken ashore. Smitzwinkel Bay, Western Cape, South Africa. For recreational fishers the bag limit for the 2012-2013 catch season is set at four West Coast rock lobsters per person per day (or only on weekends depending on the dates) and the size restriction is 80mm carapace length.
Hand caught by a recreational free diver, a living West coast rock lobster (Jasus lalandii) is put in a net and taken ashore. Smitzwinkel Bay, Western Cape, South Africa. For recreational fishers the bag limit for the 2012-2013 catch season is set at four West Coast rock lobsters per person per day (or only on weekends depending on the dates) and the size restriction is 80mm carapace length.

Lobsters are known to play a crucial role in maintaining balance beneath the sea, and as I anchored myself in the swaying kelp forest to photograph a full trap being hauled up to the kayak above, I wondered what the end of lobster would mean to this unique ecosystem. Similarly, on board the James Archer, after the last trap was set and I photographed the crew huddled around a shared cigarette, I wondered what the end of the iconic kreef would mean to them and the culture of the West Coast. Kreef only narrowly missed sliding on to SASSI’s red list. Perhaps at the opening and closing of each season we should be reminded of just how delicate this delicacy really is.

West Coast rock lobster (Jasus lalandii). Paternoster, West Coast, Western Cape, South Africa. The shell of a west coast rock lobster on a beach is buried in sand by strong wind. The people of this west coast fishing village rely on fishing for lobster for an income. This photo could be a metaphor for the ghost of a community should the lobster stocks collapse.
West Coast rock lobster (Jasus lalandii). Paternoster, West Coast, Western Cape, South Africa. The shell of a west coast rock lobster on a beach is buried in sand by strong wind. The people of this west coast fishing village rely on fishing for lobster for an income. This photo could be a metaphor for the ghost of a community should the lobster stocks collapse.

Comments

  1. Fleur O'Meara
    March 4, 3:00 am

    Wonderful photography Sam and I am now much more informed about lobsters. To think they were so much larger two thousand years ago. I hope more people read your article and take action.

  2. Fernanda Da Gama Rose
    Nairobi, Kenya
    February 16, 2:31 pm

    After reading your article, I will think before eating lobsters! What a shame to see the Rock lobster populations drop to an all-time low!
    Your article was informative; the photos were special!

  3. Jacqui Sugden
    Tanzania
    February 13, 4:30 am

    Well done Sam, great article and photos

  4. Zummi Cardoso
    February 12, 3:02 am

    Interesting read and great pictures. Congrats!

  5. palle rune
    kenya coast mombasa
    February 11, 6:31 am

    I make reference to the comment that the RSA Rock lobster is only half the size of those found off the South African west coast a thousand years ago.
    Jared Diamond in his latest book about the demographics of settlements in the pacific, note that as settlements became rooted in the island in both Poly and Micronesia, i.e. wherever the migrants from South Asia went in their spread through the pacific, middens and fossils show that over time the size of all marine life caught for food diminished and that oysters and other bivalves for example, are tiny today compared with those in the bottom of the middens laid down a thousand years ago.
    Natural selection from those lesser fry that survive mans ferocious appetite for seafood, mean the the gene base for survival is dominated by those creatures that were too small and insignificant to harvest economically.

  6. Brian Meadley
    Spain
    February 11, 5:18 am

    Well done, Cheryl! Super article and first class pictures.

  7. Shelley Powell
    Tanzania
    February 11, 3:04 am

    Great article Sam. Really impressed and the photos are amazing.sp

  8. Mike Gurley
    Seattle
    February 10, 11:26 pm

    Great stuff. always remember, one hand for yourself, one hand for the job. ( on a boat )
    Hope all is well, across the pond. MDG

  9. Elizabeth Owen
    February 10, 2:55 pm

    Well done Sam. Wonderful article and superb photographs. Don’t expect anything less!! EO