TREK FISHING IN SIMON’S TOWN AREA

By E R Biggs, Simon’s Town Historical Society, Volume XVII, January 1993, pages 117-120.

Gaining a subsistence living from the sea by netting fish from shore-based boats is an age-old manner of earning a living.  Records have been found showing that the early inhabitants of the South Peninsula, the Hunter Gatherers, relied to some extent on the products of the sea to supplement their fynbos plant foods.

The methods of trek fishing or seine-netting from the beach have not changed over the centuries and it is still regarded as a way to gather food.  A shoal of fish is spotted from an observation post on the hill or a promontory above the bay by the ‘uitkyker’ [lookout] or ‘wagter’ [the one who waits].  Blue water or sometimes light yellow, indicated harders; elf gave a bluish tinge; a dark colour showed a compact shoal and an experienced fisherman could estimate the number of fish.  When the spread of colour moved within range of the trekkers, a signal would be given by whistle or flag and the boat with the net piled in readiness in the stern sheets, sets out from the shore with one end of the net secured to the shore by a rope manned by all available volunteers, sometimes even including members of the passing public.  The net is paid out over the stern and the boat manoeuvres in a circle in accordance with instructions signalled from the look-out post.  The other end of the net also has a hauling rope which is brought ashore.  The net is pulled in and the enclosed fish are thus hauled to the shore.  There are no motors aboard to frighten the fish.

At the turn of the [nineteenth/twentieth] century, fishing from shore bases was a thriving industry.  Trekking is a family business going on from generation to generation with the father teaching his son the tricks of the trade.  It is a hard and dangerous life offering only a precarious existence.  It involves much heavy labour, fighting out through the breakers, followed by the tedious hand­-hauling of the net to the beach with the men trudging backwards in a tug-of-war exercise until the cod-end of the line comes out of the water and the catch can be assessed.  Work does not end there as the boat has to be dragged above the high water mark and secured.

Trek beaches

­Trek-netting operations are confined to sandy beach areas, free of rock which could foul and damage the nets. [The study includes details of Buffel’s Bay, Steenbras Bay, Jaffar’s Bay, and Long Beach, but I have only included the details of Klein Vishoek/Breda’s Beach, which are in Fish Hoek.]

Klein Vishoek/Breda’s Beach

The rights were first owned by the Bruins’ family who salted harders and mackerel, which were dried and hung on ‘stelassies’, put into old ‘trap-balies’ and salted.  They were sold to the farmers of Paarl, Wellington, and Worcester areas.  At first they were taken by wagon to these areas to be sold for about £2 to £3 per 1,000 or were bartered for vegetables.  Later, the fish were put into sacks and sent by goods train.  The rights were bought by Gysbert van Reenan van Breda in 1888.  The business was continued by K P van Breda (Uncle Kenny) until he sold the business in 1959, the same year that Marine Oil Refiners bought Klein Vishoek from him.

Makriel Bay in the vicinity of Klein Vishoek; the rights were transferred there from Jaffer’s Beach when the extensions to East Dockyard [Simon’s Town] were carried out.  Achmat Achmat took over rights on the death of Jaffer.  He has a permanent team of 25 men and three boats.  The number of men can swell to 50 in the summer when the south-easter brings steenbras and yellowtail.  The look out is probably near Hopkirk Way, Glencairn, where a cave is used for shelter, this was used for the fishing off Glencairn beach as well as there was a boat there until about 5 years ago; there is also a look-out above the beach of Klein Vishoek.

The problem of supplying fresh fish to the vendors was overcome in the early years by the erection of an ice factory near the railway line at Simon’s Town.  The ice produced was brown as the water came from the mountain springs.  The fresh fish was packed into the ice and railed to the suburbs.  Gradually, with the advent of cool boxes and refrigerators, the factory declined and finally the building was demolished.

TREK FISHING

THE WHISTLE FROM THE MOUNT

Pages 4-5, FISH HOEK MAGAZINE, 1954, 20 pages, price 6d.

For a greater portion of the year, Fish Hoek’s trek fishermen stand by, ears attuned, for the sound of the action whistle blown by a lookout far up on the mountain behind Jager Walk.  Let the shrill blast pipe its clarion call and you will see running figures emerge from the fishermen’s huts half way along the beach front.  They will speed to the boats already loaded with coiled nets and with excited gesticulations, and with much voicing of instructions to each other, the launching will take place.  You will be able to witness crews being directed to the shoal [spotted by the lookout] by flag signals from the mountain, supplemented by whistle blasts.  As the boats are beached and the great haul-in starts, you will notice people wending their way to scan, comment, and study the silver horde.

 

Procedure

The ‘Voortrek’ man [the front man in the boat] was entitled to at least 4,000 fish.  This position was rotated in turn.  Failing his taking this amount, the catch was abandoned to the ‘agter trek’ [the back man] and trekked again.  Usually the ‘agtertrek’ man netted the fish that escaped from the ‘voortrek’ nets.  The sale of the catch was shared with the Captain, the owner, the boat, and the net taking two shares; the rowers and the man on the shore 1½ shares, and the owner an additional share for selling the fish.  During a 6-month season, earnings could range from £25 to £30 with the owner grossing £150 per annum.  The fish hawkers and representatives from the fishing companies bought the fish at a price determined by the size and type of fish.

Boats

There seems to be no ‘Cape’ design boat.  Tradition prevailed with changes being made as the conditions warranted them.  The sea eliminated the bad points and gradually the boats began to resemble each other in appearance and handling qualities.  They all had to conform to local conditions - be easy to row, sail fast, be of a strong construction, a good surf boat, but light enough to handle up the beach in the strong south-east winds of the False Bay area.  This was accomplished by passing stout poles through rope strops at the bow and stern; these were then hoisted on to the shoulders of as many as 16 men.  The boats had a broad beam for stability; were short-ended with little or no overhang at bow or stern so that it could negotiate steep, short seas and surf; a broad transom for load carrying and work space.  The length varied from 5m to 8m and the beam from 1,6m to 2m.  They were pulled by 4 to 5 oars with a rudder steering for off-shore work although the helmsman used a steering oar or ‘sweep’ through the surf.  On the whole, the boats did not have to do anything well, but, what is more important, they did not have to do anything badly; they were likeable and well-behaved sea boats with no dangerous habits.

The boats were usually re-timbered when the timbers failed and they were re-planked when the planking gave in and so after a generation the only original part remaining would be the shape and the name!  We have little knowledge of the boat builders.  One who is known was James Thompson, builder whose boats were modelled along the lines of those used along the west coast of Scotland.  His original shed was on the shore of Steenbras Bay.  The original shed was preserved and transferred to the East Dockyard to the South side of office of the Commodore of the Dockyard.

Usually a rough shelter or shack would house the man to build and repair the local boats.  It was often a part-time occupation and the average fisherman would usually be able to carry out all but major repairs using his tools and local resources.  The local part-time expert often became permanent and a family affair would evolve of a partnership of brothers, fathers, and sons.

 

‘Our beach’, said Mr Ehrnst Muller, 82, ‘will be like a garden with no flowers if the trek fishermen are restricted and eventually banned’.  Mr Muller’s family have been fishermen in Fish Hoek for 3 generations now - his grandfather was born in the Homestead in 1846.  He was a fisherman in the days when fishing from the beach was unrestricted and they were able even then to fish at night.  ‘Fishermen don’t cause trouble on the beach’, said Mr Muller.  ‘I feel that this is the first move in getting the fishermen off the beach - it's just not right’.  Mr Muller is a ‘spotter’ - he climbs the mountain every day in the hope of spotting shoals.  His whistle then alerts the fishermen on the beach who then follow his signals from the mountain top.  ‘Sometimes we see nothing for days on end and that is mostly when we need to trek blind in the hope of catching fish’, said Mr Muller.  It is also felt by Mr Muller that the fish come in at night, attracted, he thinks, by the lights of Fish Hoek.

 

Fish types caught

There has been a gradual shift in the type of catch taken by the trek fishermen.  At the turn of the [last] century 83% consisted of ‘angling’ fish - elf, yellowtail and white steenbras, and only 5% harders.  Today this has been reversed with harders forming 87% of the catch and the rest being made up of yellowtail, elf, white steenbras, and belman. [That was the case when the report was written – unfortunately there are now so few fish in False Bay that trek fishing has almost died out!]

 

 

THE OLD WORLD VILLAGE, Part 15: The Trek Fishermen

By L J D Gay

Netting of fish from shore-based boats is an age-old manner of earning a living here, a way of life that was changed by the birth of the Fishing Industry with its hundreds of Purse Seine Netters[1] in its wake, who had but one target.  Fill the boats as soon as possible and then off to the factory and back for more.  This build-up for easy money soon resulted in the usual habits of the shoal fish being totally disrupted, and was a serious threat to our once plentiful local supply of fish.  First the smaller fry suffered and then the larger fish that lived off the moving shoals. It became all too clear that government would have to introduce control measures, which was done, and now False Bay is practically closed to the Purse Seine Netters.  It became clear also that the extent of trek netting would also have to be controlled and about three years ago, a system of permits for this and discs for the nets was introduced.  Now good catches of yellowtail fish and haarders are being made.

Still, Trek Fishing now is but a shadow of the past.  The days when it was a common sight to see a mound of 50,000 to 75,000 haarders on Long Beach [Simon’s Town] and also at Buffel’s Bay [and also at Fish Hoek beach] have long gone by.

Right along the coastline from Muizenberg below the Railway Station to Kalk Bay, Fish Hoek, Glencairn, Simon’s Town and beyond as far as Buffels Bay hardy old fishing families and those who worked with them had their Golden Days, now alas wiped out by the greed of man and his modern methods which have changed the course of these shoal Fish and upset their natural run and former habits.

 

 

‘GARDEN WITHOUT ANY FLOWERS’ TREKKING RESTRICTIONS ON FISH HOEK BEACH

From: FISH HOEK ECHO, 28th March 1981, pages 1-2

The original title deeds of Fish Hoek read thus: ‘Not to keep a public wine house; and that the right of fishing shall be free as heretofore and the strand [beach] itself quite open to the public’.  These are the two servitudes drawn up by Lord Charles Somerset which are still in existence.

It was decided by Fish Hoek Town Council recently that as from 1st July permit holders would be permitted to operate one boat instead of two.  At present there are three permit holders: Mrs K Albertyn; Mr Rykliff (Wynberg), and Mr J P Russell (Fish Hoek).  Of these three, two have two boats each, Mr Russell operates only one boat.  In all, the total is five boats operating off Fish Hoek beach.

Each permit holder is allowed a ‘span’ of 12 men, that is to say that the 12 men operate the two boats belonging to the permit holder, but 12 men are needed on a boat at a time, rendering the one boat useless while the other is in use.  The reason for two boats is that each boat has a different net - ­one has a sink-net, the other a net used for catching fish nearer the top of the water.  As the nets are extremely heavy, it is necessary to have them ready in the different boats for when the shoats are sighted - time is precious to the trek fishermen as the shoals move quickly.

By restricting the permit holders to one boat each, the Council has achieved absolutely nothing.  The ‘span’ remains at 12 as it always has been, regardless of whether there are one or two boats.  The fishermen, though, will certainly feel this particular restriction.  Says Mr Russell, a Fish Hoek resident and permit holder who has fished all his life, ‘I feel this is simply a way of chasing the Coloured fishermen off the beach.  They cause no trouble whatsoever and I feel this is totally unjust’.

The Council have, in addition, banned ‘blind trekking’ entirely and all trek fishing activities from half-an-hour before sunset to half-an-hour after sunrise.  ‘This is really one of the best times to fish’, says Mr Russell, ‘there is no interference - there are few trains, no hobies [sailing catamarans], no people on the beach, and no swimmers.  All these things break up the shoals due to movement or noise.  ‘I also believe’, said Mr Russell, ‘that it is possible for an experienced fisherman to sight fish at night due to the phosphorus, or if there is a full moon’.

Council, on the other hand, feel that blind trekking is detrimental to the ecology of the bay because the fishermen use a sink-net with extended hauling ropes which scrape the bottom of the seabed and disrupt marine life.  This, of course, is probably quite true.  It is also strongly felt, though, that the damage caused by these three permit holders is minimal when compared to the trawlers which are allowed into our bay.

WHY, we should ask ourselves, are the trawlers not banned if it is the ecology of the bay that people are so interested in.  If the trawlers were banned, then perhaps the trek fishermen, as well as the rock anglers could enjoy fishing in the bay.  In the opinion of the Department of Agriculture and Sea Fisheries ‘the damage caused by the trekking off Fish Hoek beach is minimal’.

Mr Neville Haynes, of Clovelly, started the original petition to ban the trek fishing from the beach which had 75 signatures.  Mr Haynes, an angler with 25 years experience, feels ‘there is no gain for anyone as far as trek fishing is concerned, except perhaps to Industry’.  He also feels that the fishermen will ‘not be deprived of a living because they only fish for 6 months of the year anyway’.  He feels also, that trekking is detrimental to the ecology of the bay, particularly sink-net and ‘blind’ trekking.  If, though the Department of Agriculture and Sea Fisheries feel the damage caused by the trek fishermen on Fish Hoek beach is minimal, perhaps these feelings are unfounded.  Mr Haynes feels though that if the Fish Hoek Council banned trekking on our beach ‘they would set the example in stopping trekking on all beaches arid then perhaps the trawling would be stopped’.  It seems unnecessary that our fishermen should be banned in order that trawlers should be banned from the bay.  Why can the trawlers not be banned regardless?  It is also felt by Mr Haynes that the beach would be better off without the trek fishermen as ‘this type of ‘Coloured’ is undesirable as far as I’m concerned.  They only work here for 6 months of the year - what do they do for the other 6 months?’

In a new petition to the Fish Hoek Municipality, Mrs Wanda Myburgh has said, ‘Would you please reconsider any restrict­ions made to limit the local fishermen on the Fish Hoek Beach and allow them to continue under former conditions? They are indeed a big part of Fish Hoek and Fish Hoek history’.

The petition was started on Monday the 23rd of April and by midday on Thursday the 26th of April Mrs Myburgh had collected 734 signatures.  ‘I feel’, says Mrs Myburgh, ‘that this is the thin edge of the wedge - Council will eventually ban the trek fishermen outright’.  She added that the reaction to her petition had been spontaneous as far as the public were concerned.