Namibia’s marine fisheries: fish feast or famine?

Namib Desert Environmental Education Trust: They practise what they preach
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July 6, 2012
Namib Desert Environmental Education Trust: They practise what they preach
July 5, 2012
Namibia’s protected areas: Transforming a patchwork into a network.
July 6, 2012

By Hu Berry

Terrestrial ecosystems are relatively easy and inexpensive to understand, but marine ecosystems are much more difficult and extremely costly to interpret. When matters become complicated, it is often advisable to step back and take an objective view to distinguish between cause and effect. It is difficult, if not impossible, to remain objective when you are an economist and the market is spiralling downwards, despite your financial expertise.

Likewise, if your political future depends on keeping an industry viable, how do you react to a dissatisfied workforce that faces lowered wages and even redundancy? What if you are a scientist, trained professionally to search for and reveal the true state of affairs, yet your findings are set aside when executive decisions are made? Approaching this quandary from a different, three-dimensional viewpoint may clarify a nationally vexing problem.

The Atlantic harvest is central to Namibia’s wellbeing. It is the second-largest money-spinner after mining. It provides food for us to eat and export, and work for 13 000 people. The industry is presenting a malaise that baffles investors, perplexes politicians, angers workers and frustrates scientists.

Let us, with our sophisticated technology, imagine being able to take a series of images using a digital camera that is so advanced that it can be set to record events based on the assumption that humans are basically selfish and greedy (the 1st dimension). Then we change the settings so that the camera is programmed to record the same scenes, based on the presumption that people are basically unselfish and considerate (the 2nd dimension). Finally, we reset the camera so that its electronic abilities can document the most difficult measurement of all for us to comprehend – the 3rd dimension of reality.

Early days

Set the digital camera’s programme on the 1st dimension, where people are selfish and egocentric. The scenes unfold, producing images of the earliest explorers and traders landing on a coast of desolation, yet rich in minerals such as guano and marine creatures. The guano lies accumulated many metres deep, covering all the islands along this inhospitable shore in a layer of white gold. On top of it and tunnelled into the richness are tens of thousands of penguins and their eggs – both edible. What is more, in the natural bays, which they later name Sandwich and Walvis (Whale), the largest mammals on Earth frolic and calve in numbers that defy counting. Seals cavort in the surf, displaying their fat and fur. The images record man’s actions. Only the targeted species are affected, penguins and whales disastrously. Seals are more resilient. The marine ecosystem remains intact, however. It is nevertheless a dynamic system, highly variable in the short and long term, and difficult, if not impossible, to predict with any confidence.

Go forward about 50 years, because two World Wars have temporarily transferred man’s attention to matters even more egocentric, matters in which selfishness and greed dominate. Namibia’s history is characterised by massive and uncontrolled fishing by European and East Bloc Nations. In 1947 the harvest begins, mounting in intensity as improved techniques and technology reap especially the rich pilchard resource. In the early 1950s about a quarter of a million tonnes of pilchards are taken. By the late 1960s official reports state that 1.4 million tonnes were caught, but with discards and illegal fishing, over 2 million tonnes are probably wrenched from the Benguela system. The inevitable population crash follows, resulting in a mere 12 000 tonnes being fishable in 1980. Hake catches follow a similar pattern, with 20 million tonnes being removed by 1990. In self-interest and greed mode, the camera dutifully records this. Following independence there is a definite change for the better. By restraining fishing to prudent levels, fish stocks recover. To achieve this Government needs to balance the pressure from industry for a higher total allowable catch, and with it the danger of further collapse of fish stocks. Still the spectre of greed persists, although somewhat masked by good catches and a recovering industry. Images fluctuate, especially in the pilchard, hake and rock lobster industry, which vacillate between strong and weak periods.

Near perfect

Now reset the camera’s programme to the 2nd dimension, wherein the human world is near perfect – people are altruistic, their actions determined by the principle that what they do is for the betterment of others, not primarily for themselves, and replay the history of fishing up to independence. Penguins and whales are still abundant while the ubiquitous seals are ever present. Tourists flock to witness the spectacle of whales breaching in Walvis Bay and Lüderitz. Boatloads of tourists visit the penguin islands to photograph and marvel at the massed breeding colonies. Whale- and penguin-watching are major tourist attractions. The pilchard, hake and rock-lobster industry flourishes. Go forward to the present – fisheries and tourism in combination threaten to overtake mining as the number-one money earner for the country. Namibia is held as the world’s prime example of how to manage marine resources successfully. This is a glimpse of what may have been.


Finally, select Reality Mode on this camera and watch as the scenes unfold in the 3rd dimension. The selfish scenes of the time up to independence are replicated more or less precisely. Since independence, Namibia’s fisheries rate among the few relatively well-managed fisheries in the world, with a solid record in management, control, and surveillance. Also, in 2004 Reality Mode, a book entitled Namibia’s Fisheries – Ecological, Economic and Social Aspects is published. It is the cutting edge of marine science, edited by internationally acclaimed scientists from Canada, Britain and Norway, with contributing authors from Namibia, USA, Canada, Britain, Sweden and Italy. Their findings are peer reviewed and presented in a series of 17 chapters that cover more than 350 pages. The images we see are focused and unmistakable. They represent objective scientific facts.


The plundering of Namibia’s waters up to 1990 lead to the near collapse of many stocks. History is unrelenting in its judgement of the insatiable greed that pillaged the pristine Benguela Current. After independence salvages a tattered industry, Namibia becomes one of the world’s top 10 fishing countries, with 600 000 tonnes of fish and shellfish landed annually. Nevertheless, findings are that of the three types of offshore fishing, demersal fishing (deep water) has a high level of management, control and surveillance, pelagic fishing (coastal waters) is variable but within acceptable limits, while midwater fishing is unacceptably non-compliant.


Furthermore, pilchards, hake and horse mackerel, previously three main contributors to the national wealth of Namibia, are no longer so. Pilchards crash and hake size declines; fortunately horse mackerel remains healthy. In fact, pilchards and horse mackerel are lower than they started 10 years after independence and hake is not much higher. Sensing the likelihood of a collapse in the pilchard industry, marine scientists maintain the standpoint that if the pilchard stock is less than 500 000 tons, a moratorium should be applied. But a zero total allowable catch is applied in 2002 only. Politics triumph again. Marine scientists develop a vision of an optimum, steady pilchard stock of 2 million tons, with 450 000 tons permissible harvest.

The Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resource’s goal of restoring fisheries to the high level of the 1960s seems unlikely. Moreover, concern over possible cost implications due to two new patrol vessels are voiced, with one new aircraft and one new helicopter looming in future plans. Donor support diminishes substantially. In spite of this, the industry earns N$1 526 million in 1990, with a dramatic increase to N$4 276 million (180%) in 1998.

Sport fishing

Sport fishing presents an attractive scenario. Especially silver kob (kabeljou), west coast steenbras, blacktail and galjoen. However, line boats haul about 728 tonnes of kob aboard in 1996, double the 361 tonnes reeled in by anglers on the beach. Ski boats account for only 97 tonnes of this delicious fish. It is expensive to spend the day fishing for recreation. If you travel from South Africa, every fish you land will have cost you N$96. Inland Namibians pay only marginally less (N$94) for each successful bite, while coastal Namibians fork out N$32 to feel the satisfying sequence of tug-on-the-line, strike and landing. This averages out to N$64 per fish caught. Better still, why not visit a local restaurant where you can order the same fresh fish, scaled, cleaned and served with other delicacies for less? Alternatively, try boarding a ski boat, where each fish costs a mere N$18. Despite these startling realities, our image shows 8 300 anglers spending no less than 173 000 days waiting for that bite, each angler becoming N$3 400 poorer in the process.

Will fish provide?

A warning image appears in reality mode. It presents the holistic view of a prominent American economist regarding the state of the nation’s wealth. Namibia’s total national wealth increases by 16% (N$34 billion in 1998 compared to N$29 billion in 1980). But minerals, the country’s mainstay of income, decrease by 81% (from N$6 279 million in 1980 to N$1 262 million in 1998). At the same time, Namibia’s population grows by about 3% annually. A disturbing trend emerges, with individual wealth declining by 33% from 1980 to 1998. Concurrently, real per capita Gross Domestic Product has stagnated, falling at an annual rate of 0.025%. The authoritative Central Bureau of Statistics issues this gauge in 2001. Will fisheries continue to provide 13% of our national wealth?

In the Foreword of Namibia’s Fisheries – Ecological, Economic and Social Aspects, the Minister responsible for fisheries and marine resources, while commending the industry, ends by making a terse statement that strongly disagrees with some views expressed. And so we are left in Reality Mode, aware that unpredictable environmental disturbances, including global climate change that impinges further on a fickle Benguela Current, make fishing a very high-risk activity. Unfortunately, our digital-image provider records only to the present, and our technology does not permit a glimpse of the tantalising future of fisheries.

This article appeared in the 2005/6 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.

Hu Berry was a scientist, conservationist and specialist tour guide. He was one of Venture Publications' most valued authors. Sadly he passed away in July 2011. To read more about him click here.  

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