by Siyavuya Madikane

West Coast could provide employment

Major growth potential for oyster and mussel culture in Saldanha

One of the oyster farm boats tied up at the quayside in Saldanha Bay, loading up with clean oysters and cages ready for “planting” in the sea. Crates filled with freshly harvested oysters are standing on the jetty after offloading, ready for cleaning and packing at the factory
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The marine aquaculture sector in Saldanha on South Africa’s West Coast has the potential to grow 10 to 28 times its current size, and could provide direct employment for 940 to 2 500 people in the area.

The research, published in the journal Food Security this month, argues that bivalve (oysters and mussels) culture can provide alternative employment in a community that has seen rising unemployment following recent downscaling of the West Coast anchovy, pilchard and hake fisheries.

The research for the paper was conducted by Mr David Olivier for his masters degree in sociology at Stellenbosch University (SU). It involved a fruitful combination of the natural and social sciences to determine the potential for sustainable growth, development and employment creation of the mussel and oyster culture in the coastal town of Saldanha.

Under the co-supervision of Professor Lindy Heinecken from SU’s Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, and Dr Sue Jackson of the Department of Botany and Zoology at SU, Olivier first conducted a literature review to estimate the ecological carrying capacity of the Bay to produce bivalves.

In the late 1990s, a suite of studies found that Saldanha’s natural environment is exceptionally conducive to the rapid growth and superior quality of bivalves. This is because the Bay forms part of the Benguela Large Marine Ecosystem, which provides nutrient-rich waters for the growth of phytoplankton. Pulses of this rich water move into the Big Bay section of Saldanha Bay every six to 10 days, creating an environment that is suitable for oyster and mussel culture in South Africa.

Based on these studies, it is estimated that in the 345 hectares now allocated for bivalve culture in the Bay, Saldanha is capable of producing 12 470 to 33 253 tonnes of live bivalves per year – 10 to 28 times the current production of 1 176 tonnes per year.

Olivier then tackled the industrial sociology part of the research. He identified the availability of the necessary skills and labour as critical to the success of the sector: “Marine aquaculture is highly labour-intensive and requires unpredictable and often exceptionally long work-hours. Sustainable development of the sector requires a local community with a high proportion of unskilled and semi-skilled labourers living close to their place of employment,” he writes in the article.

“The sector also requires very specific skills such as boat-handling, commercial Scuba diving, mechanical repairs and construction. As Saldanha is historically a fishing town, such skills are readily available,” he adds.

By multiplying the current number of direct employees in the sector – 89 in total, directors included – by the potential production figures, Olivier shows that the sector has an employment potential of between 943 and 2 518 individuals, potentially benefiting an equal number of households, and supporting a further 2 830 to 7 554 people.

However, an assessment of the regulatory and market environment showed that the expansion potential of the sector is perceived to be hampered mainly by regulatory issues. This includes incomplete implementation of a cohesive and accessible financial support policy, slow processing of mandatory samples required to monitor product safety, poor facilitation of access to international markets, price undercutting by imports subsidised in their countries of origin, and injuriously high lease fees for water levied by the parastatal harbour authority, coupled with lack of medium- and long-term lease tenure.

While these perceptions persist, the researchers conclude that substantial recent changes to legislative and regulatory frameworks, together with the real will of government to develop mariculture, may still create the ideal environment for the biological potential of West Coast waters to be realised in Saldanha Bay.

The research was funded by SU’s Food Security Initiative, an initiative of SU’s HOPE Project, a campus-wide initiative in which the institution is using academic excellence and cutting-edge research to overcome some of the country and the continent’s greatest challenges.

Did you know?

Saldanha Bay is among only four sites used for the culture of Pacific oysters (Crassostrea gigas) in South Africa. South African oyster production has the advantage that when northern countries are experiencing summer mortality, South African oysters are in peak condition in the middle of the southern hemisphere winter.

Cultures of bivalve molluscs such as oysters, mussels and clams can produce a high-value product without some of the drawbacks of farming other species. Bivalves do not require feeding, as they remove phytoplankton from the water and convert it into edible protein.

In 2010, annual production of oysters and mussels was R14.4 million and R9.1 million respectively, making these the second and third most valuable mariculture products in South Africa, with the R355m abalone sector dominating.

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