FEAST AND FAMINE’ - The Fishing Industry of Plettenberg Bay

14 September 2017
FEAST AND FAMINE’ - The Fishing Industry of Plettenberg Bay
A talk given by Karin Kastern
 
In the Knysna Plett Herald of 24 August 2017, we are introduced to the youngest leaders in the fishing industry of Plettenberg Bay, Wayne Craig and Peter-Blaine Dodds.
 
I will take you back, and relate some history of how these young men can look into the future, and make their mark on the painting, which is “the History of the Fishing Industry of Plettenberg Bay”.
Plett was a fishing village long before it became a tourist destination. Cast your mind back, there is evidence of a fishing industry all over Plett , from whaling, to squid, to hake, these are the industries that have shaped, to a great extent, the history of our beautiful town.
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The history of human life in Plettenberg Bay stretches back to 120 000 BC with Stone Age Man.  We see traces of their lives in two caves, known to us as the Nelson Bay Cave on the Robberg Peninsula and the Matjies River Rock Shelter near Keurboomstand. 
When the ocean was close, fish was on the menu.  Shell middens dating back 3 000 years, as well as a number of remaining fish traps, bear witness to this. 
In an era of discovery and adventure, as Europeans built their ships and travelled the world, early explorers travelled the African Coastline and made great discoveries. In 1487 the Portuguese explorer Bartholomew Dias, and in the winter of 1630 the large Portuguese ship São Gonçales became the first recorded European visitors to Plett, they did not stay long.
 
In 1763 the timber industry started in the forests of the Southern Cape. Our town became one of the ports of export of this valuable commodity. Horses dragged the wood out of the forest and oxen swam it out to waiting ships off our beaches. The Timber Industry flourished!  At last! It is 1797 and we become aware of a formal fishing industry in our Bay.
 
While the Dutch East India Company had started commercial whaling in South Africa at the start of the 18th Century, it was only after they opened up the whaling to other foreigners that this industry took off along our coasts. An English merchant, John Murray started controlling the whaling industry. Plettenberg Bay was identified as one of six places nationally, where the industry flourished.
The first cargo of whale oil left the shores of Plettenberg Bay in 1834. A number of names stand out as major roll players. Sinclair, Cornelius  Watson, Percy Toplis, the Thesen family, Jacob Odlands, who invested heavily into infrastructure on Beacon Island, whaling steamers, a meat boiling plant, an electric-lighting plant and teams of whalers all for what they hoped would be a lucrative business. The placid Southern Right whale was harvested. 
Whaling operations ceased abruptly in 1916. “Thankfully,” we say, as we now value whales so differently. 
The First World War had prevented the export of oil to England and stopped the industry in its track. 
Parts of the iron slipway are still visible today as well as a boiling pot on the Island, and the many street names and even some dwellings of that time are preserved.
Another short-lived exploitation of what the ocean yields, was that of seals, for their pelts, oil and meat, and the genitalia of the adults. This happened in the late 1800's. The government responded to a public outcry by conservationists and suspended all harvesting of seals.
In the 1960's Commander Cobbold and Jock Hunter ran fishing boats in Plettenberg Bay and sold their wares to the “Irvine and Johnson Depot” located in the old post office building (now Hola Café). This depot was called “Robberg Visserye”. The Ollemans family took this business over and set it up in the Noel Centre “the red brick Georgian style building” in Main Street, Plett. This building belonged to Mrs. Ollemans. Malcolm as a bank clerk from Cape Town visited his friend Louis Ollemans in Plett.    And, in 1979 Malcolm Craig took over that business as a small retail fish operation. He saw a business opportunity in creating an outlet for fisherman to sell their catches
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Legend has it – and I love telling this story to my customers about “the beginnings of Robberg Fine Foods” - that Malcolm, being a fisherman too, would row out to sea in the early morning to fish. Once he'd caught enough, he rowed back and sold his catch on the beach and later from the red brick building on Main Street. The rowing boat, in fact, was a ski boat! And Malcolm had contracted other boats too, to supply a beautiful variety of fresh fish to “Robberg Fisheries and Robberg Butchery”. The outlet we all got to know in the 1980's.
 
Also squid. Was it not interesting that this commodity was used as bait and not for eating! Chokka bait was transformed into squid or calamari which graces most menus in our town, our country and the world! But I am getting ahead of the story, Malcolm was joined later by the late Peter Dodds. Peter brought to the business his “little black book” of amazing recipes as he had a particular flair for making any fish dish a delicacy and a feast. Who does not remember The Islander Restaurant, where these masterpieces came to the table night after night?
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Together they expanded the business into fishing, processing, retail and wholesale distribution. In the early 1980's, the supply of line caught squid grew as the demand from overseas grew and vessels as far and wide as Oyster Bay were bringing their squid to Plettenberg Bay and selling it to Robberg Fisheries. They recognized the potential of squid and became involved in pioneering the Squid Export Industry.  In 1983 operations were relocated to larger premises in the industrial area of Plettenberg Bay. This enabled them to pack and freeze larger volumes of squid for the European export market, as well as carry on with their normal wholesale and retail operations. 
Squid is very seasonal in its nature and according to scientists, its annual migration into shallow water to spawn is mainly dependent on the clarity of the sea. If the sea conditions are not right, they spawn in deeper water.  Squid has an 18-month life cycle and dies shortly after spawning, a blissful way to go! It is a fast-growing species, which makes it a sustainable resource to use, provided it is not overexploited.
Boats look for the squid with echo sounders and then congregate above the pod, jostling for best position to fish them. The number of boats is directly proportional to the size of the pod of chokka below. As this all happens at night, the presence of chokka in our bay is very evident when we see the lights just off our shores.
 
The species of squid that is caught in our waters is the most sought after in the world. Obviously, therefore most of our squid catches are exported to Europe, affectionately known as “white gold”.
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The bigger vessel operators opted to build vessels that could do the packing, freezing and boxing of the product on board, hence improving the quality immensely.  This industry has over time, gravitated to St Francis, where the port has been specially designed for the squid export industry. 
 
Kevin, Johann and Ryan
These young men show us quite a different industry supported by fish.   Recreational fishing is a huge catalyst for the tourism industry – another strong industry of Plett. Every household has at least one such photograph in an album or on the walls of their home or on their laptop. This type of fishing is a skill passed on from generation to generation. It's a form of bonding which is most successful when everyone is relaxing and on holiday. Closely related is Trout fishing. In 1987 Chris and Karin Kastern started a trout farm on the Prince Alfred Pass, at De Vlugt, on the Farm Kwaairivier, they had bought from Paul & Sue Scheepers. The beautiful cold water, the low height above sea-level, and much research done around the country by these two and their children resulted in a 10ton trout production unit with a unique location. Chris built the production unit into the channel supplying water to a historic watermill on the farm Kwaairivier. This mill dates back to the time when corn was milled there for the farmers of the valley.
The Kasterns had great success growing the trout. Many visitors came to support them and enjoy the fresh mountain air, while at the trout waters of the Kwaai and the Keurbooms Rivers. 
But, they were a little ahead of their time. There was still too much sea fish about and no restrictions on catches,  there was perceived to “be plenty fish in the sea out there”. Trout always took the back seat on the menus of the Garden Route. Also, the distance to be travelled on a gravel road, to the farm, was odious to many drivers, you must remember, that it was “before the time” of the popularity of 4X4's. The Kasterns joined forces with Robberg Seafood and started managing the retail shops called “Robberg Seafood Safari” in Plett and Knysna. The Plett shop was recently renamed “Robberg Fine Foods The Store”.
 
Back to Plettenberg Bay, and the development of the line caught hake industry by Robberg Fisheries, by now called “Robberg Seafoods”. The name developed according to the wares on offer for sale. “Due to the seasonal nature of squid fishing,” says  Malcolm, “it was our utilization of hand line caught hake, between squid seasons, that enabled us to provide permanent employment for our factory staff and the fisherman manning our vessels.”
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As records show, Robberg was the only fishing company in South Africa utilizing and developing this particular fishery. Due to traditionally losing money on hake catches, because of the abundance of cheaper trawled hake, they were forced to look into other markets for their superior quality line caught hake.  According to the SABS, in 1991, Robberg Seafoods became the first company in South Africa to export fresh hake to the more lucrative European market, thereby initiating what has now become a major export industry. 
Fishing capacity developed steadily with further acquisitions and upgrading of the fleet.
Even then they, together with others, realized the need for increased productivity in order to make the line caught hake fishery more viable, and the idea of long-lining for hake was broached.  This eventually led to many meetings with the Department of Sea Fisheries and a two-day workshop at Stellenbosch University which evolved into the three-year South African long-line experiment. Vessels remained at sea for a maximum of three days at a time.
Robberg Group was involved in the experiment from the beginning and was initially the only inshore component of the experiment to successfully catch its allocation.
The vessels long-lining were moored at Central Beach, all fuel, ice, food and other supplies were loaded by dingy’s from the beach to the vessels and all offloading of fish done in the same way. This was done by what was known as “the beach crew”. These moored boats were also a tourist attraction and part of the face of Plett.
 
In order to export the fresh hake to Europe, the quality had to be exceptional.  To achieve exceptional quality, fish was gutted and iced the moment it came on board.  For every hour it takes to bring the temperature of the hake down to 0 degrees, one day of shelf life is lost.  If a fish is placed on ice the moment it is caught and kept at a temperature of 0 to 4 degrees, it will have a shelf life of 14 days.
Fish was trucked to the factory, where it was packed for export into polystyrene boxes, under controlled temperatures and HACCP regulations, then trucked to JHB where it was loaded onto an international flight to Spain.
From the sea to the markets of Europe our Plett hake took 4 days – a remarkable feat of organizational skills.
On retirement, Peter Dodds sold out his share to his son, Blaine. Today Malcolm is the managing director with his partner Blaine as a director. They have been partners for 35 years now,  and often joke about being partners for longer than many people are married. This company has made a sizeable contribution to the local economy, as well as providing a valuable foreign exchange to the country.
In a very clever adaption to the changing playing field, both politically and economically, over the years the company has sold off most of the boats to make way for Black Economic Empowerment. Where possible the company has assisted these new businessmen with financial backing as well as offering sound advice and clerical assistance. Assistance is given with the quota applications when they need to be submitted.
After the 2005 fishing license applications (hake hand line, line fish and hake longline), many of the fishermen prior to this were not successful in obtaining licensing.  There were also reports of the stronger players outsmarting the lesser versed fishermen. This was the beginning of the decline in the fishing industry in Plettenberg Bay as we knew it.  Many vessels were sold or just decommissioned or moved to other areas which were more accessible not requiring specialized vehicles and tenders to run their operations
 
In 2015 Robberg sold their longline vessel, the last in the fleet and outsource the fishing of their Hake Longline Quota.
Today, even though there are no boats moored at Central Beach, there is still a steady supply of good quality Hake and line fish which is sourced from other fishing companies along the south coast.
 
And on into the future,  a video was recently launched on our website. Have a look at www.robberg.co.za

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