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2014-07-24 | News

High fish quotas drive unsustainable fishing industry investment, scientists warn

A fisheries quota allocation that over-estimates Namibian fish stocks can compromise the long-term profitability of the private sector fishing industry by encouraging an over-investment in its fleet, and related infrastructure, environmental scientists have warned. Unfortunately, their financial commitment means that the industry repeatedly pressures policy makers to issue over-optimistic quotas, leading the resource into a downward spiral.

While individual firms may benefit from an increased quota, the fishing industry as a whole is left financially unsustainable unless the state issues more realistic fishing quotas. The industry would also benefit from cutting back on the entire fleet, and streamlining for efficiency.

These are some of the recommendations by environmental scientists, following their analysis of Namibia’s fishing management practices since independence in 1990.

‘As it stands, the system currently rewards additional investment by increasing the quota of the particular right-holder for the subsequent year,’ explains Prof Tony Leiman, with the University of Cape Town’s Environmental Research Policy Unit (EPRU).

The fishing industry has used this over-capacity to lobby the Minister of Fisheries to increase the total allowable catch.

‘Politicians have to balance Namibia’s competing needs - jobs, food security, foreign exchange generation, and tax revenue collection. However, looking at how fish stocks have been managed in the past 20 years, the quotas issued by the Marine Resources Advisory Council have often been higher than those recommended by marine scientists.’

The problem is not new: between 1994 to 1999, Leiman says the MRAC regularly overrode the government scientists’ recommendations for the total allowable catch. This suggests that either there was disagreement on the state of the resource, or that the MRAC was making decisions using a shorter time horizon than the scientists.

Leiman warns that the lure of short-term political or economic gain should not outweigh the long-term sustainability of fish stock management.

A shared understanding of the different objectives, needs and time horizons of policy makers, scientists and the private fishing sector, would go a long way to making the sustainable management of the country’s fish stocks easier.

‘At times, these three interest groups have been at odds with one another,’ says Leiman.

These recommendations come from an analysis of both the Namibian hake industry since 1990, and the state’s implementation of Operational Management Procedures (OMPs), a technique based on resource models that many participants in the debate only understand poorly.

‘The trouble is that policy makers, the fishing industry, and scientists have different functions, time horizons and needs. Vessel owners often face immediate costs that have to be met, current money is worth more than a promise of future riches. They can’t wait for next year to get access to the resource,’ Leiman says.

Similarly, policymakers often lack confidence in the mathematical models on which OMPs are based. The result is pressure on the MRAC and the Minister to override scientific advice. If the different parties involved in the fishing industry could share a better understanding of the political, economic and scientific issues that link them, the result would appear in streamlined policy formation and improved fishing stocks. 

More fish is good for everyone

‘The simple reality is that without fish, the fishing industry is dead,’ says Leiman, ‘and the more fish there are, the cheaper and easier it is to catch them, and the larger and more valuable the average fish will be.’

However it is often hard to sell this idea to individual fishing companies, who benefit immediately in the short term from getting maximum access to the resource.

Namibia inherited a badly depleted resource. Since independence the country’s fisheries policy has been held up internationally for its science-based management approach, and for working towards rebuilding the stock and sustainable exploitation. But the EPRU’s analysis shows that scientific advice is often ignored and that the resource remains over-exploited.

As long as hake stocks remain below target, the state will lose its income from taxes and levies, the sector will shed jobs, and private fishing companies will lose profits.