TENS of thousands of tonnes of fish, apparently mostly horse mackerel, are being stolen out of Namibian waters by licensed foreign-flagged vessels operating in Angolan waters.
According to well-placed sources in the fishing industry who wish to remain anonymous, between five and ten foreign vessels "chase their catch" up to 60 nautical miles (110 kilometres) into Namibia's exclusive economic zone.
Each vessel has a capacity of 1 200 tonnes, and could launch into the Namibia fishing grounds many times a year. Ten vessels could land over 100 000 tonnes of horse mackerel in a year. Namibia's annual horse mackerel quota is 340 000 tonnes.
Because of this, Namibian companies are losing revenue as the market is being flooded with horse mackerel, hence forcing operators to sell fish cheaper, one of the sources said.
"Namibian companies are losing millions in revenue," the source said.
Even more disconcerting is that Namibia's horse mackerel stock, which is an important economic supplement to an already ravished fresh pilchard supply, is being plundered by foreigners.
Fisheries permanent secretary Moses Maurihungirire did not wish to respond on the "very serious matter", saying the ministry was verifying the information with people on the ground before a detailed response could be given.
"It cannot be rushed into the ears of Namibians. In addition, we have to get in touch with our Angolan counterparts to verify this, as we have a joint patrol agreement with our northern neighbours. Just bear with me on this very serious issue," he stated.
Namibia's northern waters are said to be flourishing with "quality" horse mackerel, with a hake by-catch. There are apparently about 14 legitimate Namibian vessels competing with the illegitimate vessels.
"Such breaches are usually done under the cover of darkness, thus not allowing our authorities to make use of aircraft," the sources told The Namibian. The foreign vessels are said to be able to detect (on their radar) that the Namibian patrol vessels are approaching, which gives them time to return to Angolan waters. They also cover all distinguishing marks, such as names and call signs, so that patrol teams cannot use photos as evidence.
"Unfortunately, the ministry of fisheries has not been able to stop the culprits, or to successfully arrest any of the illegal vessels as the task is not easy. One could say the authorities are at war with these illegal fishers, and they need all the assistance we can give them in terms of social and political support to bring the culprits to book," the source said.
Another well-placed source said it was government's aim to protect Namibia's resources, and that the government understood the industry's concern. It was thus not a matter of 'if' the culprits are caught, but 'when'.
Methods are now being employed to identify and/or inpound the vessels. "The reason it is not easy is because thieves do not go around brandishing their schemes for all to see. They make sure they are as invisible as possible," the source stressed.
In February already, the chairman of the confederation of Namibian fishing associations, Matti Amukwa, mentioned at the annual ministerial fisheries meeting at Walvis Bay that foreign-flagged boats were "sneaking" into Namibia's waters from Angola to steal Namibian fish.
The Namibian also attempted to get comment from Benguela Current Convention executive secretary Hashali Hamukuaya, but he was in a meeting. A message was left, but he had not responded by the time of going to the printers.
The convention is a cooperative guardianship of the Benguela Current ecosystem which is shared by Namibia, South Africa and Angola.