Creecy on why search for fishers was ended



Published May 23, 2024


Sea Harvest-owned fishing vessel MFV Lepanto has sunk 350m deep into the ocean, not only making it impossible for the boat to be retrieved, but also a challenge for divers to search and find the bodies of 11 fishermen.

This was among the reasons the search was called off, according to Forestry, Fisheries and Environment Minister Barbara Creecy, who visited Sea Harvest’s offices to meet some families, survivors and company management.

Three vessels were fishing together about 34 nautical miles offshore from Hout Bay when one, the MFV Lepanto with 20 crew aboard, encountered distress.

“One of the sister vessels which noted the incident issued a mayday call while the vessel in distress sank quickly.

Nine crew members were rescued and 11 presumed deceased at this stage. The two sister vessels, together with National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) and other authorities, immediately conducted the search.”

Three vessels were fishing together about 34 nautical miles offshore from Hout Bay when one, the MFV Lepanto with 20 crew aboard, encountered distress.

The vessel had reportedly sunk in a matter of minutes.

“There was an extensive search and rescue that was conducted from the time the vessel was sinking, which was at about 3.30pm until late on Sunday when the search was formally called off. With regards to the location of the vessel, I was informed that it has sunk about 350m and that it is not possible to reach a vessel that deep as a diver can only go down to about 30 to 80m deep.

So at 350m depth that would be impossible, that is the logistical challenge,” said Creecy.

She said Sea Harvest was currently taking legal advice in relation to how to move from a matter of the fishermen presumed to have drowned to a permanent determination in the interests of the families.

She also met four of the survivors, including the crew member who deployed the rescue craft that saved the nine fishermen.

“They are in a state of shock and some are experiencing survivor’s guilt.

The only thing they could say was that the incident happened very fast.

The MFV Lepanto has sunk 350m deep into the ocean, not only making it impossible for the boat to be retrieved.

“This is an extremely difficult and painful time for everyone. To face a situation of loss is one thing then there is this case where there is no confirmation of a deceased in terms of a body. Moving forward, Sea Harvest will organise a space where all families are in one space and SA Maritime Safety Authority (Samsa) will also be there to explain further the terms and conditions of the investigation,” said Creecy.

She said Samsa’s probe would include written and oral statements regarding the history of the sunken vessel, and maintenance and servicing.

She said Sea Harvest had confirmed that all the fishermen were formally employed and mechanisms were in place to ensure their families would be provided for.

Food and Allied Workers Union provincial spokesperson Zolani Mbanjwa said the survivors struggled to describe the incident. The union had also questioned the decision to abruptly call off the search.

@capetimessa Elmina Titus, wife of Marshal Titus, one of 11 fishermen presumed to have drowned when one of Sea Harvest’s hake deep-sea trawl vessels sank, are demanding transparency and answers from the company. #topstory #mostread #inthenews ♬ original sound - CapeTimesSA

“The nine were apparently on the deck while others were working in other sections underneath.

“They just saw water coming in fast and the boat sinking. It is a very painful and traumatic experience for them, to an extent that some are contemplating leaving their employment. It is sad to leave your house knowing that there is a possibility of not returning back in the evening.”

“They felt that the search was called off prematurely and I fully understand them. To find closure and solace, these survivors and families need to know that bodies were found and offer their last respects.”

Mbanjwa said there were challenges that employees experience in the sector and some were rectified.

This includes long working hours at sea with very limited rest, and as the union within the bargaining council of the fishing industry, they had addressed the issues.

Sea Harvest CEO Felix Ratheb did not respond to some media questions, saying the company had said all it could at this stage.

He, however, confirmed that the fishermen had been out at sea for three days before the tragedy.

South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi said: “We urge that measures must be taken before boarding of ships to prevent such tragedies from happening again. This should involve tighter regulations for safety purposes, but not to exclude small-scale fishermen from conducting fishing as a subsistence activity. Government must support those small fishermen to meet all the regulatory measures for safety purposes.”

Cosatu also went to the Sea Harvest offices to offer condolences to families and to try to get answers from management.

Cape Times