A holistic approach to fisheries management – Fishing is not just about catching fish

A collaborative partnership with the authorities – Supporting government, supporting the environment
July 15, 2012
African wild dogs – saving this predator from extinction
July 15, 2012
A collaborative partnership with the authorities – Supporting government, supporting the environment
July 15, 2012
African wild dogs – saving this predator from extinction
July 15, 2012

by Barbara Paterson, NNF consultant

For the last hundred years, traditional fisheries management has been founded on the assumption that the dynamics of fish populations could be predicted based on a few parameters, and that the way to manage fisheries was to control fishing. The failure of this approach is obvious today, and the collapse of the world’s fish stocks sends out a clear message.

The constant hum of the ship’s engine is suddenly drowned out by the whining of winches. A bell sounds to call the crew to their stations. Although I’m not part of the crew, I climb out of my bunk to get dressed. This is easier said than done. Leaning against the bunk, I struggle to keep my balance, standing on one foot while the other is halfway down a trouser leg.

A couple of oranges rolls across the table as the floor of the cabin rises towards me. I want to make a bid towards catching them, but then think better of it. I’m not cut out for this, I think, my stomach churning. Trying to ignore the queasy feeling and holding on firmly with both hands, I find my way out and up the stairs to the bridge.

I am on the Resplendent, one of Hangana’s wet-fish trawlers, to do participant observations for a research project. From the elevated position on the bridge, I look back over the deck to where members of the crew are waiting for the trawl gear to come up from the depth of the ocean.

As soon as it appears, the laborious process of getting the massive net on board and the catch below deck begins. Winches and heavy metal cables are being manipulated and the guys move about the deck following a plan I don’t understand. All the while the vessel is rolling heavily in the swell.

I wonder how these men stay on board. Bad weather increases the danger, explains the skipper, causing accidents to happen so much more easily. As captain, he is ultimately responsible for the safety of every person on board. But today’s weather isn’t that bad, he chuckles. “It’s just my lack of sea legs that makes it appear worse.”



Namibia’s hake harvesting fleet comprises around 120 vessels, including wet fish trawlers, freezer vessels and long-liners. At the time of independence-, Namibia inherited severely depleted fish stocks, a result of irresponsible fishing practices by foreign fleets, and a legacy of the scientific management approaches of the past.

Rebuilding fisheries

Since gaining independence, Namibia has worked hard at rebuilding her fisheries. But old habits die hard, and so it is hardly surprising that the traditional, science-based management approach remains prevalent in fisheries management worldwide.

At the 2002 World Summit for Sustainable Development, Namibia made a commitment, along with neighbouring nations South Africa and Angola, to implement a holistic management regime, often referred to as the ecosystem approach to fisheries management, or EAF for short. According to this new paradigm, fish stocks should not be considered in isolation but as parts of complex social ecological systems.

For fisheries management this means that it is important to think about the role of hake, horse mackerel and sardine within the larger context of the social-ecological food chain. This involves asking questions about what it is that we as a society value about fisheries. What should the goals of our management regime be?  Obviously the long-term health of the fish populations and the wider marine ecosystem are central to such questions, as are the social, cultural, and political contexts of fishing.

The Namibia Nature Foundation (NNF) is currently partnering with the Benguela Current Commission (BCC) and the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation to investigate what the sociopolitical circumstances of fisheries might be in the Benguela Region, and how this context might be integrated into fisheries management.

Ecosystem approach

The BCC has a mandate from Namibia, South Africa and Angola to promote an ecosystem approach to ocean governance in the region. An essential element of the BCC mandate is to increase the explicit inclusion of social and economic issues in the fisheries management decision process. Issues such as poverty, food security and unemployment are big factors that are already playing out in the political arena.

Because traditional fisheries management is geared towards considering basic biological facts and stock estimates, sociopolitical considerations are treated in less rigorous and often unstructured ways. It is therefore important to create spaces where these considerations can be carried out openly and transparently. As a pre-requisite for such transparency, fisheries managers and decision-makers need better information and knowledge on the social, cultural and economic elements that are relevant to fisheries in the BCC countries.

As part of the project on the human dimensions of fisheries, the NNF has facilitated a series of workshops to bring key people in the region together for roundtable discussions on what the human dimensions of fisheries mean and to agree on priority topics for further research. By the end of 2011 the project will produce baseline reports and research recommendations for key fisheries in the three countries.

The NNF human-dimension project is at the cutting edge of fisheries ma-nagement and research worldwide. Although an EAF has been accepted as the preferred way to address fisheries management questions, implementation has been slow. A key barrier is that managers are not yet equipped with the tools or the required information to grapple with the many sociopolitical issues around managing fisheries.

This article appeared in the 2012 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.

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