The responsibility to manage Namibia’s rich bio-diverse coastal and riverine waters is a challenging task that has experts split on how well that responsibility is being carried out by the fisheries ministry.
Development economist and University of Namibia (Unam) senior lecturer, Blessing Chiripanhura, who conducted and co-authored an extensive analysis of the fishing industry for a 2016 paper, says overall the ministry “is doing a good job protecting and managing Namibia’s fisheries”.
Chiripanhura says he reached this conclusion “after carefully considering the history of the sector, how other countries plundered the marine resources in the pre-independence period, and the extent to which the ministry has safeguarded the stocks of fish, thus allowing for the sector to grow sustainably, except for pilchards”.
Chiripanhura also praised the ministry’s co-operation with other stakeholders in the sector, including countries who have been enlisted to improve the ability of government to protect fisheries stocks from overexploitation, through surveys and anti-poaching activities.
Yet others point out concerns related to the ministry’s dual role as both the guardian of resources, particularly marine resources, while also being tasked to drive the economic benefits derived from those same resources.
As a result, the ministry has been accused of prioritising the commercial exploitation of marine resources over and above its mandate to protect stocks and support the ecosystem, as well as ensure sustainability in the sector.
A scientist who declined to be named said the crux of the matter is that there is “no separation of commercial interests and sustainability and environmental interests, which always come second”.
A case in point is a three-year moratorium placed on pilchard fishing at the end of 2017, after many had accused the ministry of ignoring ample evidence in the preceding years of the collapse of pilchard stocks, which were nearing extinction.
The 2017 ban was preceded earlier that year with a defiant announcement by the ministry of a 14 000-tonne pilchard quota.
If a fishing ban had been put in place decades ago, thereby prioritising long-term interests as opposed to short-term interests, “we would now have a vibrant pilchard fishing industry, with many jobs and a healthier marine ecosystem”, the scientist argued.
Moreover, the ministry has faced frequent criticism for refusing to share research and survey on the sector and over the fact that no environmental impact assessments are required.
The ministry’s lack of transparency, coupled with serious constraints due to a lack of staff and other resources to effectively manage and maintain the sector, including the freshwater sector, which faces a serious decline in fish, was highlighted as additional key concerns.
Addressing the ministry’s emphasis recently on the ‘Namibianisation’ of the commercial fishing industry, Chiripanhura said government should focus not only on local empowerment, but on practical aspects, including the “distributional aspects of the policy”, by considering which Namibians benefit and put strategies in place to ensure wider participation in the sector.
Chiripanhura said he hit “several brick walls” while conducting research to identify the shareholders of companies benefitting from fishing quotas.
“If there can be more transparency in this regard, as well as in the process of quota allocation, that could help improve the governance of the sector,” he said.
Another key issue with regard to the ‘Namibianisation’ of the sector for government to consider, he said, is the fact that operators often have “little or no access to capital and have to rely on hiring foreign vessels to fish for them”.
As pointed out by other concerned stakeholders, Chiripanhura said this leads to leads to “rent-seeking opportunities that militate against job creation and the building of capital stocks and capacity for Namibia to significantly gain from the fisheries sector”.
Access to credit should be a “cornerstone” to the endeavour to improve local participation and benefits for Namibians, he said.