IF THE Springboks play tomorrow the way the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has handled its responsibilities of late, we are in for a hiding from England. The department has dropped the ball badly in a number of areas, most recently with regard to the commercial hake industry's membership of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).

The suspension of SA's annual observer programme, which entails sending independent scientific observers out to sea to determine the size and sustainability of the hake stock, means no MSC certification. And no MSC certificate means a significant number of customers, particularly in Europe, who have committed to buy only certified fish, will be forced to look elsewhere for supplies.

This is no minor issue for an industry that has suffered in recent years from a combination of fluctuating fish stocks and under-investment prompted by uncertainty over fishing rights.

Spokesman Lionel Adendorf's glib response that losing access to much of the European market, which takes a share of SA's hake valued at R1,4bn every year, will "give us an opportunity to look at new markets" is breathtaking in its stupidity. An entire industry has been placed in jeopardy by bureaucratic bungling and a couldn't-care-less attitude, with as many as 5000 people at risk of losing their jobs.

Establishing stable markets takes years; getting the MSC accreditation was a process that took almost a decade in itself. Mr Adendorf may not expect job losses, but that does not accord with the feeling in the industry, which is that if the MSC accreditation issue is not resolved post haste, retrenchments will be the only option open to some fishing companies to cut costs in the face of plunging revenues.

The certification fiasco is, of course, a direct consequence of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson's decision to award, and then cancel, an R800m tender to run the department's sea fisheries vessels. The contract was granted to empowerment group Sekunjalo under circumstances that were challenged in court by the previous holder, Smit Amandla. But instead of conducting a proper investigation of both her department and Sekunjalo's conduct or allowing the law to take its course, Ms Joemat-Pettersson chose to try to discredit Smit Amandla and refused to extend its contract temporarily so the vessels could continue to operate.

The South African Navy has now officially taken over the running of the patrol and research fleet but the inevitable delay is having ramifications that extend beyond just the hake-trawling sector. SA has not been patrolling its exclusive economic zone properly for weeks, and the department has also missed sending out scientists on a separate observer cruise to determine the sustainability of small pelagic fish in our territorial waters. The fishing industry stepped in to try to salvage the situation by sponsoring a second survey, and the sea fisheries research vessel, Africana, was due to sail from Simon's Town this week.

However, it is unclear whether the deadline for completion of the survey will be met and if it is missed, it is likely that a conservative allowable catch will be set for the rest of the year to ensure the survival of the species is not threatened by overfishing.

Considered in the context of the department's inability to provide adequate support to new black farmers; its failure to properly maintain livestock fences on our national borders, which has resulted in devastating outbreaks of disease; and the fact that the ostrich industry hangs in the balance due to the lack of a co-ordinated response to the Avian flu outbreak, it is a wonder that Ms Joemat-Pettersson survived Tuesday's Cabinet reshuffle.

If the captain won't act, perhaps the selectors should.