It’s a warm Monday afternoon at Walvis Bay’s Kuisebmond coastal township. Tendrils of smoke rise from the braai stands which have been set up by local street vendors, and the fresh ocean air neutralises the sting of tripe over a fire, while startled street dogs are seen scourging for leftovers in waste piles. Contrasting the harbour town’s city centre, the bustling township is characterised by narrow sandy streets, spaza shops and the Ekutu Latika open market, where the heart of the township’s economic activity takes place.
On this day, local fisherman Hiskia Tangeni (54) makes his way home to the Twaloloka informal settlement in Kuisebmond. It takes us 30 minutes to arrive on foot from the central business district of Walvis Bay where we first meet. Coming from the rowdy township area where most houses are brick-built and shacks, we reach Twaloloka where the mood and scene change. Characterised by military green and white tents, this part of the township looks more like a campsite than a place people would call home.
It is clear that an outsider has come to visit as the eyes of children observe us as we walk through the small community. At a distance, two women of the community are seen looking ahead, their faces downtrodden. Many families, who are also struggling economically, have lost hope in the local government to provide them with houses; this part of the township has also been riddled by crime over the last months.
“A woman was raped in one of the tents the other day,” Tangeni says as we make our way to his family’s tent.
When we arrive, the fisherman welcomes me inside and offers me a seat.
“This is home,” he says, in a low and somber tone. Tangeni is not a man of many words.
His facial expressions are telling of a man who is struggling to provide for his family, unimpressed and beat down by his current circumstances. The father of five has been living in his tent provided by the Red Cross since last year after their shack burned down in July during a mass fire.
“I took what I could,” he says, as his face scans the rest of his family’s remains in what looks like a kitchen. However, for this fisherman, his living situation has only added onto his existing problems.
“It’s now six years that the vessels for sardines are not working,” says Tangeni, who has been a fisherman for more than 25 years on both local and foreign fishing territory.
Waters off the coast of Namibia were once abundant with sardines and pilchards, but over the years these fish “disappeared”, he said, adding that the industry has become generally unstable for workers.
The fishing industry provides jobs for more than 10 000 workers at the country’s port towns of Walvis Bay and Lüderitz in the //Kharas Region, according to figures by the Erongo Regional Council. The industry has, however, over the years gone through bouts of stress caused by quota corruption, overfishing, and climate change factors making it unstable for its workers.
“I am a fisherman from 1994, I began on small vessels. I was also on the international sea until 2007,” a reminiscent Tangeni says.
The fisherman had been working for local fishing companies most of his life. In 2015 he was retrenched from Hangana Seafood, his last job in the industry.
Fishermen have blamed the government and fishing companies over the years for unfair treatment and mismanagement within the industry.
In 2015, more than 4000 fishermen took part in a nationwide strike demanding better wages. Tangeni was hopeful at the time but for the last five years has not worked for any fishing company. The unemployed fisherman visits the local market to buy beer and then resell it from his home to make small proceeds and survives on a government social grant.
“We are not educated. Who can help our kids if we are going to die? What is N$1500 to me, a father of five children,” Hiskia Tangeni, fisherman
On the other side of the port town, fishermen are gathered at the Namibian Fishermen’s Association waiting area., They are required to visit the association every day to clock in for industry administrative purposes.
Like Tangeni, most of these fishermen are unemployed and hope to receive jobs at fishing companies and factories again. The chairman of the association, Mathew Lungameni, is often asked whether they will receive jobs but says it is not the association’s mandate to provide jobs for the dismissed fishermen.
“It is the government and the companies. It is well-published that the government promised to provide jobs to all fishermen who had been dismissed on 26 October 2015,” Lungameni said.
A fishing ban was set by the Namibian government in 2017 to aid the sardine species’ recovery and long-term sustainability. According to scientists, the sardine industry, which peaked in the 1960s, collapsed in the late 90s due to overfishing.
In 2017, local newspapers reported that ex-fisheries minister, Bernard Esau, who is currently facing charges of fraud and corruption, allegedly downplayed the sardine and pilchard shortage despite advice by scientists at the time calling for a ban.
Although the fishing ban ended in 2020, fishing companies say there has been no word from the government on the way forward, leaving fishing companies and workers in the dark. To date, many of these fishermen and factory workers remain unemployed not knowing when they will receive jobs again, while contract workers fear they may not have a wage tomorrow.
Fishing companies have struggled to survive economically over the years, and many of them have downscaled on staff to survive. Walvis Bay’s Etosha Fishing Group has been hit the hardest by the sardine and pilchard shortage.
“The past decade has not been plain sailing for Etosha Fishing due to a dwindling local pilchard resource, which has traditionally been the mainstay of the company’s business,” the company said in a statement in February. The company retrenched some of its permanent workers and sold three purse seine vessels used to catch pilchards. If business continues as is, more than 600 workers at the company may lose their jobs.
“The three-year ban remains in place without any clear decision taken by the government yet on the way forward.” The company also buys raw material for canning by importing frozen pilchards or purchasing horse mackerel from local right holders at “unsustainably high prices exacerbating the situation.”
Managing director Nezette Beukes said she is hopeful the company will make it past difficult business times, but if the pilchard industry continues as is, more jobs will be lost. “If we are forced to close our cannery, it would not only spell the end of Namibia’s pilchard industry but the loss of more than 600 jobs,” she said.
The “Domino Effect”: Climate Change and Overfishing
There is mounting evidence that the South Atlantic Ocean in particular the Benguela Current Ecosystem (BCE) is heating. Marine biologist and operations manager of Namibia Fisheries Observer Victoria Erasmus said the population of some species such as sardines declined due to a combination of climate change and extensive exploitation pressure.
This, in turn, has had a domino effect on other species populations that depend on sardines and pilchards for food. The mortality of food fish, she said, means that fishing factories become less functional, and people lose their jobs, which in turn affects food availability. Moratoriums, although necessary, also create demand for other unexploited fish albeit benefits the economy.
“This has created an avenue for unexploited fish to be exploited thereby contributing to food security and economic growth,” she said.
It has been reported that when the warm waters enter the northern part of Namibia, fish species such as hake and sardine are displaced from the north to the central part of Namibia where they are susceptible to fishing,” Victoria Erasmus, marine biologist, and operations manager of Namibia Fisheries Observer.
There has also been evidence over the years which suggests that climate change-related factors have affected fish off the coast of Namibia.
According to the marine biologist, climate change has affected the distribution of some fish, from the north to the central part of Namibia. She said past “warming events” have been linked to fish mortality along the coast such as sulfur outbreaks. These eruptions, however, only affect a limited part of the shelf, particularly the coastal waters around Walvis Bay.
Scientists and fishermen noticed pilchards’ species moving away from Namibian waters years before the fishing ban in 2017. According to one Oceana Sustainability Report in 2019, the Namibian fishery managers and scientists tackled the recovery of the country’s fisheries, including hake and sardine.
The report revealed that the Namibian sardine industry grew rapidly during the 1960s and peaked in 1968 when catches were 1.4 million tons. The highest biomass of pilchard ever estimated was approximately 11 million metric tons in 1964; however, catches drastically declined since then and the stock collapsed in the early 1970s and “never recovered fully”.
Millions of people in largely developing coastal communities depend on the fishing industry for their livelihood and half the world’s population relies on fish as a major source of protein. When fish disappear, so do jobs and coastal economies,” World Wildlife Organisation.
If sustainable fishing factors are not considered, many more fishermen in Namibia and around the world will no longer have jobs in the near future.
One-third of the planet’s assessed fishing stocks are already being overfished. According to the World Wildlife Organisation, overfishing can cause also loopholes in entire ecosystems worldwide and creates an imbalance that can “erode the food web”, and can alter the size of fish that are remaining and affect how these fish reproduce including the speed at which they mature.
The demand for fish will continue to increase globally leaving more businesses and jobs dependent on dwindling food fish stocks and high-demand seafood will also continue to drive overexploitation and environmental degradation.
Losing hope for a better tomorrow
Fisherman Hiskia Tangeni sees little hope in the fishing industry for his near future and has considered leaving Namibia with his family.
“I am thinking of maybe going to Angola with my family, things are not changing for me here,” Tangeni says, planting a hopeful but faint smile on his face.
Although he is in line to receive a home, without a job or a consistent income, he says he would only struggle to keep up with expenses and to provide for his family.