Fishing industry gets lifeline

South Africa has thrown Namibia's ailing fishing industry a lifeline with the announcement that it will allow the country limited access to its pelagic fish stocks.

Namibia's stocks of pelagic fish - sardines and anchovies which live near the ocean surface - have dropped dramatically with South Africa experiencing a surplus.

The assistance followed an urgent request from the Namibian ministry of fisheries following a sharp decline in their pilchard stocks, said Horst Kleinschmidt, the deputy director-general of South Africa's Marine and Coastal Management department.

In terms of the agreement, South African quota holders would be able to sell 25 percent of their quota to Nambian vessels, Kleinschmidt told IRIN. The arrangement would last until 15 December, and each Namibian vessel's catch would be monitored by an on-board observer.

The fish would be canned in Namibia, which would help secure jobs in the canning industry there, and help retain the country's export markets.

The agreement would not adversely affect South Africa's stocks, as Namibia would be accessing unused existing quotas, Kleinschmidt explained.

"We have a vast increase in our pelagic fish - it was up by about 100,000 mt - and we didn't expect it," he said. "We just want to be good neighbours."

For the fishermen of Walvis Bay, where Namibia's pelagic fish are brought to land, the news has been a relief.

"There will be employment - not thousands of jobs - but some people will be employed for longer, for which we are grateful," Hilda Johansen, secretary-general of the United Fisherman's Union told IRIN. "We had a zero quota for our pelagic fish this year because our stocks were depleted.

"The whole pelagic industry has had to be downsized because of resource problems and low quotas. The workforce had to be retrenched because companies closed and vessels were sold," she said.

The announcement comes a week after delegates to the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, were urged to form partnerships to reach the goal of regenerating the world's fish stocks by 2015. Delegates were told that up to three-quarters of the world's fish stocks were depleted.

South Africa's conservative fish stock building policy, and good environmental conditions in recent years, has seen the country's pelagic fish stocks exceed expectations, said Dr Johann Augustyn, research director at the University of Cape Town's department of marine resources.

By contrast, Namibia has had a bad season. The southerly winds, that should buffet Namibia's coastline pushing warm surface water away, allowing an upwelling of icy water rich in plankton on which pelagic fish feed, were weak.

Without the winds and the corresponding upwellings, the fish were unable to get to the plankton.

Augustyn said scientists were not yet sure if the recent reduction in the southerly winds were an anomaly, or a pattern.

"Some say it's global warming or part of climate change," he said.

The possibility that it might be associated with another El Nino year - which would spell drought for the southern African region - could not be excluded, he added.