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South Africa is looking to both protect dwindling fish stocks in the oceans off its coast and boost the fishing industry's output by promoting aquaculture as the way forward for the sector.

In September the department of environmental affairs and tourism released a policy paper on the development of a sustainable marine aquaculture sector in South Africa, a document two years in the drafting.

Developed in conjunction with stakeholders in the sector, the policy calls for additional support of the industry to allow it to expand and make a greater contribution to the economy. This, according to the policy statement, can be achieved through environmental protection regulations and by unclogging regulatory bottlenecks that slow the development of new projects as well as increasing the types of products farmed.

"The main purpose is to encourage acceleration of the development of the marine aqua-culture industry," said Mava Scott, department spokesperson. "It is further aimed at promoting the development of an economically sustainable and globally competitive industry with minimum negative impact on the environment."

Pam Yako, director general of the department of environmental affairs and tourism, said aquaculture holds many benefits for South Africa.

"Aquaculture has a great potential to meet the challenge of poverty and, at the same time, alleviate the burden of over harvesting in our oceans," she said on July 3 during a meeting with stakeholders while the policy was being developed.

Over-harvesting and the resultant falls in fish stocks have hit South Africa's fishing industry hard. According to the department, catches of some species in the waters off the coast have dwindled by as much as 90% in the past 50 years. Aquaculture could help reverse the decline in the industry.

Currently, the most successful form of aquaculture in South Africa is abalone farming. At present, there are 13 land-based tank farms in South Africa that between them produced 890 tonnes of abalone for the export market in 2006, a cash crop worth $25m, the department said. According to the Abalone Farmers Association of South Africa, a further 10 farms are in the process of being developed.

Last year's production was a far cry from the 100 kilograms of total output from South Africa's abalone farms in 1996, which was the first year land-based cultivation of the mollusc was attempted.

South Africa's total aquaculture production is miniscule by international standards, standing at just 1% of Africa's contribution, which in turn is only 1% of world output of the $52bn global industry.

One of the factors that has slowed the development of the sector has been the drawn out process of environmental impact studies, which includes obtaining the necessary permits from authorities. This, according to Peter Britz, a specialist in aquaculture at Rhodes University, has discouraged many potential investors.

However, by identifying zones or "nodes" that can be set aside for aquaculture, these problems could be overcome, Britz said in an interview with a local newspaper on September 25.

"In the policy, the department now adopts a much more developmental approach with 'aquaculture development nodes'," he said.

However, according to John Bolton, a specialist in mariculture at the University of Cape Town, South Africa's aquaculture industry should concentrate on already successful, simple products, such as molluscs and seaweed, rather than fish higher up on the food chain.

Concentrating on products, such as abalone, which are cultivated in tanks and require less care than carnivorous fish while bringing in a high level of return on investment, should be the focus of South Africa's aquaculture industry, Bolton said in an article published in a local journal at the end of May.

Tank-based aquaculture is also less damaging to the environment than open-water fish farms, Bolton said in his article, which formed part of the research for the department's policy paper.

Bolton pointed out that most of South Africa's coastal region is not suitable for open-sea fish farming since it lacks enclosed bays and a shortage of freshwater resources would hamper the development of river-based aquaculture.

Acknowledging potential problems that may arise from expanding the sector, the policy paper includes a list of assistance for investors, including tax breaks, duties, grants, credit and other available government fiscal measures.

Though start-up costs for aquaculture can be high, so too can the returns. With aquaculture becoming one of the world's fastest growing food production processes, the department of environmental affairs and tourism's policy paper could be the way forward for the industry to scale new heights.

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