REPRIEVE: The Marine Stewardship Council has extended SA's accreditation. Picture: FISH SA/TIM REDDELL

THE next one to two years would be "critical" if SA's deep-sea trawler-caught hake fishery were to hold on to its Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) accreditation - essential for SA's export market, and a sought-after assurance to consumers of sustainable management - the council's Southern African office said on Friday.

The council confirmed SA's continued accreditation on Friday, despite "red flags" raised in an independent third-party "audit" of the way in which SA was managing the fishery, the country's only fishery accredited by the council.

The loss of the deep-sea trawler-caught hake export market - estimated to be worth half SA's total annual R2,89bn deep-sea hake market - would cause a price collapse as unaccredited fish would flood the South African market. The industry has already been hit by a decline in the southern European market due to the financial crisis.

"We note that the next one to two years will be a critical period for implantation and delivery of key aspects of the conditions and client action plan", the council noted in its report. The next two years would need to see implementation of plans to improve the sustainability of the fishery.

MSC Southern Africa programme manager Martin Purves told Business Day: "The bottom line is that it remains certified, although the audit picked up certain things, such as the lapsed observer programme."

Mr Purves said four new conditions had been added to the previous eight that SA had to meet to keep its accreditation. This included reinstating the observer programme and improving enforcement of rules and legislation aimed at maintaining the health of SA's fish stocks.

Shaheen Moola, MD of Feike Natural Resource Management Advisers, an independent advisory service, said, "We should count ourselves lucky - the MSC suspended the Atlantic mackerel fishery for far less."

Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries spokesman Selby Bokaba said the department would work closely with the industry to ensure the new conditions were met. MSCl accreditation helped the department improve its own management systems and added value to the fish stock, he said.

SA faced suspension this month after Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson halted the MSC-required scientific observer programme to ensure the fishery's sustainability.

The halting of the programme followed a dispute over tenders to organise the observer cruise.

Ms Joemat-Pettersson's awarding of an R800m tender to black-owned company Sekunjalo was cancelled after the previous tender holder, Smit Amandla, took the matter to court.

Public Protector Thuli Madonsela is probing corruption allegations. Her office said the probe, expected to be completed in September, was looking into the process through which the department awarded the tender to Sekunjalo, and allegations of victimisation of the whistle-blower.

She would also investigate a claim that using the South African National Defence Force to patrol the waters of SA's exclusive economic zone as a stop gap was ill-advised.

The council said in its report that there was "clear evidence" SA continued to implement "rebuilding measures" for its deep-sea hake stock to March this year. The World Wide Fund for Nature SA's latest fisheries report, published last year, noted that deep-sea hake were 15% over-fished.

Mr Purves said the report issued on Friday by Intertek Moody Marine, which the council used as an independent third party, covered from March last year to this March, "so issues that came up since March (this year) will be picked up in the next audit and there are some red flags".

blaines@bdfm.co.za