SEISMIC tests off the coast of southern Namibia by marine oil prospecting vessels could result in the collapse of the tuna industry.
It is believed that the migrating route of tuna (a large pelagic species) between South African waters and Lüderitz has been disrupted to such an extent that some of fishing companies will not survive this season, which ends in April.
This time of the year there could be up to 40 vessels with about ten employees each catching tuna, but this is not the case this season, sources told The Namibian. Now there are only about ten vessels at sea.
The large-pelagic industry employs about 800 Namibians and contributes significantly to Namibia's fishing export revenue - all of which is now being threatened.
Seismic tests are conducted by exploration vessels by using a large 'sledgehammer' to create sound waves under water. The course and intensity of these waves are recorded and are indicative of underwater and underground substance. These sounds also drive fish away and are believed to be fatal to marine mammals such as dolphins and whales.
These tests are apparently taking place about 30 kilometres from the Lüderitz fishing grounds.
The chairman of the Namibian Large Pelagic and Hake Long-lining Association, Matthew Hambunda, confirmed these fears, saying that the industry is seeking an urgent audience with the ministers of mines and energy, and fisheries and marine resources to address the problem.
Seismic tests have increased in the southern waters, which has already resulted in less than half (about 2 000 tons) of the tuna quota being landed by the end of 2012.
"This year will be far worse. I don't even think we'll land a thousand tons by the end of this season," Hambunda said.
Namibia and South Africa have a 'sharing quota' of 10 000 tons - that is 5 000 tons each. Tuna apparently swim north from South Africa's side, but increased seismic tests near the border have led the industry to believe that before the fish enter Namibian waters, they divert from the usual route. Namibian and South African vessels apparently operate on both sides of the border, hence the 'sharing quota'.
According to Hambunda, the prospecting vessels, through their agents, inform the industry when and where seismic tests will be conducted. It is apparently not every day, but there may be a week or more in a month during which tests are conducted daily. Besides these warnings of pending seismic activity, there was no consultation between the stakeholders, industry and government to review the pros and the cons of the surveys.
Hambunda stated that some of the measures that could be explored to reduce the impact could include a directive for seismic surveys to take place in the off-season - between May and October - while also finding alternative technology which reduces the sound shocks that scare the fish away.
While this season, which ends in April, may be one of the worst when it comes to landings, the industry will have to count the cost and hope that solutions are found to pave the way forward as from the next season, which starts in November.
"We would like to see a solution to keep this industry going," Hambunda concluded.
Fisheries and Marine Resources Minister Bernhard Esau told The Namibian that he did get a letter of concern from the large pelagic industry recently and that he hoped to schedule a meeting with them soon to "get the facts".
"They have listed the reasons for their concerns about the seismic activity and that it has a negative impact on catches. It's a bit premature from my side to give an informed comment. We will have to hear them out and it may be that we will get specialist findings from our scientists. They will have to test the concerns and then from there we will have to try and find solutions," he said.
Esau had just finished his annual address with the fishing industry in Walvis Bay on Friday when the newspaper approached him regarding the seismic tests. He had not brought the subject up during the address "because we still need to know more".
A ministerial source, who wishes to remain anonymous because they are not permitted to speak to the media, said that considering last year's tuna landings, which was the worst ever, and the fact that seismic tests were done in the peak of the catching season, it was necessary to address the matter by introducing mitigating measures such as no tests being done during migrating season.
The Namibian understands that marine seismic tests in Australia have affected fishing negatively there too and that measures were put in place where no such activity was allowed during fishing seasons.