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close this book SPORE No. 54 - December 1994
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Fishermen under aerial surveillance

At 0800 the Sea Eagle, the F406 surveillance aircraft is ready for take off from Eros airport, a few kilometres from Windhoek. A lunar landscape separates Windhoek from the ocean but as the aircraft reaches the coast the radar begins to pick up echoes from boats at sea. As the plane comes in close, the fisheries inspector notes the fishing licence numbers which should be clearly visible on the two sides of the wheelhouse. The navigational position of the ship is also noted and the type of fishing gear in use. On his return the inspector will be able to check his information with the register held at the Ministry of Fisheries office in Swakopmund and identify those fishing without authority. Tomorrow it will be the northern zone on the flight plan for surveillance. The northern zone is a particularly sensitive area because here fishermen rely on the uncertain demarcation between the borders of Angola and Namibia to try and avoid coming under the maritime laws of either country.

The seas off the coast of Namibia have some of the best fish stocks in the world and before Independence these were freely plundered by foreign vessels. An aerial surveillance system has now been set up to control illegal fishing. Once spotted from the sky, pirate fishing boats have nowhere to hide.

Fishing off the Namibian coast does not always bring good luck to the fishermen, as the shipwrecks that lie broken and battered by the waves can testify. Some are more than 400 years old; the 'Skeleton coast' is well named. It has always been a treacherous coastline, swept by violent storms, shrouded in thick fog and lapped by the cold ocean current, the Benguela, which flows up from the south polar seas. But this coastline borders one of the richest fishing grounds in the world. Along the whole African coast, Mauritania is its nearest rival although its potential production is less than half that of Namibia. Westerly winds force the cold Benguela current against Namibia's narrow continental shelf bringing water rich in oxygen and mineral nutrients to the surface in an effect known as upwelling. The combination of nutrient rich water and the sun results in blooms of plankton, a source of food for the shoals of cod, mackerel, anchovy, hake and sardines. Current production of sardines is 500,000 tonnes per year, production of cod is 800,000 tonnes per year and production of crayfish, which are concentrated further south near Luderitz, is 900 tonnes per year.

The good times - are over

It is clear that in the past fish stocks were greater than they are now. In 1968 catches of all fish totalled 1.5 million tonnes. But the foreign boats which came to fish had no interest in conserving the fish stock and by 1990 catches were less than a third of those obtained in the ‘60s.

On 21 March 1990, Namibia gained Independence, and with it the need to earn foreign exchange. Fish are the country's most valuable natural resource, after diamonds, and represent about 15% of exports. Among the first three laws passed by the new Legislative Assembly was the declaration of an Exclusive Economic Zone of 200 miles. Without authorization, fishing within the Zone is now illegal. The country's new leaders understand the value of their 1,500 km of coastline but policing 580,000 square kilometres of sea, which is frequently obscured by fog, is a difficult task when fishermen are intent on evading the law. The French Ministry of Cooperation working with Namibia's Ministry of Fisheries, is supporting a project to protect marine resources and provide aerial surveillance of the fishing grounds. An agreement has been signed between the two countries which includes the donation of an aeroplane and the construction of a hangar. A French pilot and a mechanic have been seconded to the project to train Namibian staff. Total costs are in the order of FF26 million.

Namibia has introduced strict laws governing the quantity of fish that may be taken from the seas. At the present time this is about 800,000 tonnes but the objective is to allow 1.5 million tonnes once fish stocks have built up sufficiently. For each principal species there is a fixed quota (150.000 tonnes of hake, 1 25,000 tonnes of sardines, 500,000 tonnes of mackerel) which is divided among the licensed vessels according to their capacity. Tonnages were increased this year because fish stocks have improved, perhaps as a result of better surveillance.

In recent years quotas for pelagic species have been so low that the nine processing factories, which produce oil and fish meal, have been operating at less than 10% of their capacity. That has now increased to 50%. Employment in the fishing industry at Walvis Bay (between 4,000 and 5,000) is far from what it was at its peak. The Namibian people have accepted that they will have to make sacrifices but they are putting a high priority on economic independence, whatever it costs, after having paid so dearly for their political Independence.