IN THE face of serious bungling by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries that could cost SA its hake exports to the lucrative European market, an official has effectively told producers to go and find new markets.

The government appears to be turning away from western markets in favour of those in the East, and especially other members of the Brics group of emerging economies - Brazil, Russia, India and China.

SA's commercial hake trawl fisheries could lose their Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) membership next month. It certifies the sustainability of the fishery.

Europe is estimated to take a 50% slice of South Africa's annual R2,8bn deep sea trawler-caught hake catch.

Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson suspended SA's annual observer programme through which scientific observers go out to sea to determine the size of SA's hake stock, and how much can be caught sustainably.

This followed a dispute over tenders with a company that would have organised the observer cruise. Ms Joemat-Pettersson's awarding of an R800m tender to black-owned Sekunjalo to run the department's vessels for five years from April 1 was cancelled after previous tender holder, Smit Amandla, took the matter to the high court.

"European consumer pressure requires such certification for fish products, without which European markets are not available," Lionel Adendorf, a Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries spokesman on fisheries, said.

"While we will not be able to access these markets, it will give us an opportunity to look at new markets, particularly where strong and solid trade relations exist.

"We have had access to the European market long before MSC was introduced as an eco-label. It is worth noting that MSC is not the only eco label - there are also others ... It therefore does not mean SA will have no access to the European markets, but that our white fish will not be available in certain stores where MSC is a requirement.

"A result of this will be a slight decline in profits for producers but we do not expect job losses."

The MSC label is required by, among others, Unilever, the world's third-largest consumer goods company ; the UK's third-largest supermarket chain, Sainsbury's; the largest US grocery retailer, Walmart; and its sixth-largest retailer, Costco.

A World Wide Fund for Nature independent review of eco labels to determine the extent to which they met the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation's sustainability requirements showed that the MSC label was "the only one that came close", with a 97% score, said the fund's sustainable fisheries manager, Samantha Petersen.

Shaheen Moolla, MD of Feike Natural Resource Management Advisers in Cape Town, said discarding the lucrative European market was misinformed.

"You don't decide on Friday that you will shift the market. Market development takes decades; and you won't earn as much in the East as in Europe. The first thing to go will be jobs," Mr Moolla said yesterday.

Tim Reddell, chairman of Fish SA, an umbrella body of fisheries associations, said it had taken 10 years to get MSC accreditation.

He said SA had missed sending out scientists on another observer cruise, to determine the sustainability of pilchard and anchovy stocks, and "as these things fall by the wayside, it will be more and more difficult to hang on to accreditation".

Mr Moolla said the collapse of the long-line hake fishery, which is not MSC-accredited, was linked to industry players being forced to sell to "other markets" a decade ago as European consumers demanded MSC accreditation.

MSC southern Africa programme manager Martin Purvess said a report expected on July 9 would give clarity on steps SA had to take to retain accreditation.

blaines@bdfm.co.za