"Fishing is our livelihood. Fishing is in our veins. In my town, 95% of the community lives from the sea. But it's more than just a job; it's a tradition, a culture that we never want to see destroyed. So if TotalEnergies thinks they can come in and drill for oil and gas without causing a problem, they are wrong. There will be huge problems."

These are the words of Rowena Europa, a small-scale fisherman from the small coastal settlement of Arniston in the Western Cape Province of South Africa. Arniston is just 44 kilometers from the 10,000 square kilometer area of ocean where Total Energies has been given the go-ahead to drill for oil and gas.

The scramble by the French multinational for oil and gas off South Africa's extremely rich and biodiverse coastline has resulted in Total submitting several applications to carry out exploratory drilling in several blocks in the Atlantic Ocean around the Western Cape.

The exploration rights for Block 5/6/7 between Cape Point and Cape Agulhas were initially granted by the South African Department of Mineral Resources and Energy in April 2023. When word first spread of TotalEnergies' plans to drill in the area, environmental justice groups Natural Justice and Green Connection, concerned citizens and small-scale fishers like Rowena sprang into action to oppose the company's application.

In an appeal to the Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, Barbera Creecy, they raised the alarm about the impact the exploration drilling would have on the environment, livelihoods and cultural heritage of marginalized coastal communities. Concerned about potential oil spills, noise pollution, the impact on marine life, and an alleged lack of public consultation, the groups were determined to convince Creecy to revoke the permit.

However, their concerns were brushed aside when Minister Creecy rejected the appeal of 18 applicants on September 24, 2023, giving Total the go-ahead to drill exploratory wells in the block.

Speaking to CJC, an angry Europa, whose family has been fishing in the waters around Cape Aghulass for generations, expressed her disappointment and anger at Minister Creecy's decision.

Like many other residents of the small coastal community, Europa and her family have been fishing in the waters surrounding the town for generations as a source of income. A livelihood now threatened by the scramble for oil and gas off South Africa's coast.

"We are not happy. We are already struggling with our basket, which means less income, and now Total wants to drill in the zones where we need to fish. The minister's approval of this project is really unfair to the fishermen. Drilling for oil and gas will be a big problem because, first of all, our tradition will be gone," Europa said.

Europa said that about 95% of Arniston's population depends on small-scale fishing for survival, and Total's project in Block 5/6/7 directly threatens an already poor coastal community.

The concerns of the small-scale fishermen were echoed by Green Connection's Community Outreach Coordinator, Neville Van Rooyen. Van Rooyen, a qualified conservation field and tour guide who works closely with fishing communities, said it's doubtful the project won't harm the marine environment and negatively impact small-scale fishermen.

"We do not trust the mitigation measures of these companies, which usually say that there will be little or no damage. We are talking about fishing areas that are at risk in this process. These are places where small-scale fishermen go in their small boats. So that means, first of all, there won't be a fishing ground for them, and secondly, the species they usually hunt will be displaced."

"You can't say that you're going to put noisy drilling infrastructure on the seabed and there's no risk or harm and the fish will stay in the area. That is not possible," Van Rooyen said.

Van Rooyen said it is not just the livelihoods of small-scale fishermen that are at risk, adding that all marine life and the seabed are also at risk.

While the project has yet to kick off, Rowena and Green Connections' concerns about the potential adverse effects of the exploratory drilling are not unfounded. A study titled  Oil, fisheries and Coastal Communities: A Review of Impacts on the environment, livelihoods, space and governance found that oil and gas projects impact small-scale fishers and coastal communities in several ways.

These include a decline in the quality of fish species and an increase in mortality of target fish, which would lead to a decline in population size. The study also found that oil and gas activities and infrastructure can displace fish from previously suitable environments, resulting in a loss of access to target species.

Regarding the environment, the study found that the placement of offshore platforms and well drilling activities can mobilize marine sediments and disturb creatures living on the ocean floor, such as sea anemones, sponges, corals, sea stars, sea urchins, worms, mussels, crabs, and many more, all of which are vital to the larger marine ecosystem.

The disturbance could result in permanent loss of physical habitat and the introduction of contaminants into marine food webs. Potential oil spills are also a possibility, which the study found would have a devastating impact on fisheries through direct mortality, habitat loss, especially in spawning areas, and could result in closures of wild fisheries and aquaculture.

However, the final Environmental and Social Impact Assessment report prepared by SLR Consulting on behalf of Total found that while an oil spill or well blowout would be devastating to the marine ecology and negatively impact fishing communities, it concluded that it was unlikely to occur.

The report also claimed that TotalEnergies had mitigation measures in place in the event of a blowout, which were deemed sufficient by the Ministry of Mineral Resources and Energy.

The report also claimed that the project's impact on small-scale fisheries and the environment would be negligible.

For Van Rooyen, however, more than these assurances are needed.

"From the first day the drill is sunk into the seabed, there is a risk of spills and pollution. The damage could be immediate, but it could also extend over a number of years. As long as the work is going on, there is a risk," Van Rooyan warned.

An angry Europa also pointed to the perceived hypocrisy of the DFFE giving the green light to Total's project, claiming, "The government says they are creating marine protected areas in the basket, so how could they allow oil and gas drilling in the same area?"

One point of contention regarding Total's plans to drill off the Cape is the alleged lack of public consultation. In their appeal to the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, small-scale fishermen and Green Connection claimed that coastal communities had not been adequately consulted, which should have invalidated TotalEnergy's environmental permit.

However, the EISA report detailed a multi-stage public participation process that took place during the ESIA process. According to the report, stakeholders were notified of the public consultations through newspaper advertisements, radio announcements and posted notices at 71 locations in 28 coastal towns.

Four public meetings and four focus group meetings were then held during the review and comment period for the draft scoping report.

While the report claims to have rigorously consulted key stakeholders such as fishermen and marginalized coastal communities, Europa complained that French hydrocarbon companies strategically held consultations in areas that are difficult for small-scale fishermen to access.

"What makes me so angry is that they don't come to the communities. They go to a central area, but how do they expect us to get there? People don't have transportation. So why didn't they come to the communities and set up meetings there?" Europa asked.

Europa also alleged that "community representatives" were incentivized to mobilize the community by being offered salaries during the consultation process. "This is not good because these people do not live off the sea."

Now that the ink is dry on the environmental approval papers, there is little standing in the way of TotalEnergies' hunt for liquid and gaseous gold off the coast of the Western Cape. But Europa is adamant that the battle for the sea is not over.

"We will resist this development. We will not allow Total in our waters. We have filed appeals, we have filed complaints, and hopefully we can go back to the courts. We need to send a clear message.”

This article is part of our current reporting project "Dismantling the Fossil Fuel Industry".