Before Namibia gained independence in 1990, foreign freezer trawlers exploited the country's rich fishing grounds with next to no benefits to Namibians. But two decades after independence, Namibia won the prestigious Silver Future Award for its progressive fisheries policies.
A number of simple but effective policies were put in place post-independence that transformed the sector. A 200-mile exclusive economic zone was imposed and strictly enforced. On shore, an approach was followed that created industrial scale fishing capacity combined with social policies that focused on job creation and food security.
The government also created a fisheries institute and put in place a research program centred around scientific stock assessment. Since independence employment in fish processing has increased in Namibia from 3000 jobs in 1990 to close to 8000 in the hake fishery alone. Today Namibia's fishing industry supports close to 13,000 jobs.
Namibia's fisheries are almost entirely industrial. Namibia's forbidding coastline largely prevented the historical development of traditional marine fisheries. Without a local, small-scale fishing sector, the path was open for Namibia to develop an industrialised fisheries sector almost from scratch.
Namibian government approach
The Namibian government's goal was to create a profitable fishing industry and increase foreign earnings from exported fish. Foreign nations that fished off the country's coast returned as investors to help build a local fishing and processing industry.
But the Namibian government did not rely on the neoliberal assumption that the economic returns and the jobs created by the fisheries sector would be enough to solve the nations post-colonial poverty issues. A Namibianisation policy supplements the Marine Resources Act to ensure the involvement of Namibians.
In addition, the Namibian Fish Consumption Trust gives Namibians access to fish products at low prices. This initiative aims to offset the negative effects that an industry directed at global markets might otherwise have for local food security.
Since its beginning, Namibia's fisheries management has concentrated on determining sustainable catch levels while increasing the number of jobs that these catches can support. It has been successful on both counts.
Ensuring that fishworkers are looked after
It is now time to stop just counting the total number of jobs and to pay more attention to the quality of this employment. There are three reasons why this is important.
First, high employment numbers do not guarantee well-being. The majority of the workforce (87% of jobs in the hake fishery in 2013) are employed as general workers and crew. Salaries for permanent general workers vary between companies but can be as low as N$1600 per month. Most workers struggle to meet the cost of urban living. Debt is a major issue for many workers and shows that wages do not correspond to the cost of living in Walvis Bay.
Most workers cannot afford adequate housing. This is because the level of production in fish processing plants depends on the amount of available fish on any given day and is therefore highly variable. During low production times workers earn much less money, temporary workers nothing. The unreliability of income makes it difficult to apply for housing loans.
Second, better paid jobs boost the economy. Namibia is among the most unequal societies worldwide, with an extremely unequal distribution of income. The high unemployment rate means that there is little stimulus to the domestic economy. Fishing companies pay better wages than other business sectors in Namibia.
But even higher wages are needed to increase local demand and boost other domestic industries and businesses. This is necessary to increase local economic benefits from the otherwise export-oriented fisheries.
There is a final, weightier reason why the current policy needs to be revisited. The focus on job creation is putting pressure on fish stocks. Namibia's most important fishery resources, shallow-water hake and deep-water hake, have not yet recovered from pre-independence over-fishing.
But to receive fishing rights and quota shares, fishing companies have to show that they provide jobs for Namibians. To do this, companies expand their fishing and processing capacity. In 2007-08, the industry invested roughly N$200 million in factories and fishing vessels.
The results is that the hake industry today has the capacity to catch and process 300,000 tonnes of fish per year. But the recent draft management plan for the fishery estimates that:
... sustained catches in the order of 150,000 to 200,000 tonnes may be the maximum possible. It is clear that the hake stocks cannot support the continued capacity increase that the policy encourages.
Namibia's progressive approach has achieved international recognition. And the development of a national fisheries sector that provides jobs for thousands of Namibians is a fantastic achievement. Now, 25 years after independence, it is time for Namibia's fisheries management to shift gears from generating jobs to improving the quality of those jobs it has created. Higher wages are only part of what's needed. Job security and occupational health are important issues that need to be addressed.
Measuring success by counting the total number of jobs tells only part of the story. Additional indicators that look at workers' living conditions and the actual value of wages are necessary. This information is crucial to understand how the natural wealth of Namibia's marine resources can be transformed into real value for Namibians.
Disclosure statement: Barbara Paterson receives funding from the Benguela Current Commission, the international science and technology agreement between South Africa and Namibia and the FAO.
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