Marine Experts Discuss Ocean Changes

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By Surihe Gaomas SWAKOPMUND The reduction of pelagic fish stocks experienced 11 years ago as a result of the Benguela El Nino phenomenon is still haunting Namibian deep waters and marine resources today. Even though this phase has passed, both Namibia and Angola have not recovered enough to realise the high levels of fish resources they used to experience in the early 1960s. Records show that Namibia had a rich supply of pelagic fish where the Total Allowable Catch (TAC) went up to 1,4 million tonnes in the late 1980s, but this dropped to zero, while in 1995 it rose to 1 000 tonnes only. In 2002, the Minister of Fisheries Dr Abraham Iyambo declared a zero TAC to allow the recovery of fish stocks, bringing the fishing sector’s operations to a snail’s pace. The catastrophic impact of the low oxygen level coupled with the major El Nino effect on the marine resources, yesterday brought together various local and international scientists and experts in the marine world at the coastal town of Swakopmund to determine the state of the ocean and the way forward. The event allows experts to have a much better understanding of the changing physical, biological and chemical oceanography of the sea, which would further aid in mitigating severe losses of marine life as experienced in the years of 1994 and 1995. At the two-day Angola-Benguela Regional Front Workshop, participants expressed alarm at the decline in the biomass of fisheries over the years as a result of the heavy exploitation of foreign fleets and impacts on the ocean environment along the Namibian and Angolan coastline. Officially opening the Benguela Current Large Marine Ecosystem Programme (BCLME) Angola-Benguela Front Workshop yesterday, Deputy Minister of Fisheries Kilus Nguvauva on behalf of the Minister of Fisheries said that in 1994 environmental conditions of the sea waters were very poor, invaded by low oxygen water, extensive outbreaks of harmful algal blooms and sulphur eruptions along the coast. This ultimately resulted in the high mortalities of young hake, pilchard and horse-mackerel. “An estimated two billion juvenile hake were trapped by the low-oxygen, water-rich in hydrogen sulphide in the inshore nursery grounds and suffocated,” said Nguvauva. During that period, 300 000 seals died of starvation and both Namibia and Angola, which share the Benguela Current, experienced major low fish stocks in the marine ecosystems. Such a scenario caused serious consequences for the fishing industry and the Namibian economy. The deputy minister stressed the need for urgent establishment of a “cost-effective early warning system” in order to monitor such events with accurate and reliable data on the ocean climate and subsequent effects on the fisheries sector. “Strategic planning and the development and testing of scenarios need to be carried out in order to mitigate the impacts of the global climate change on the BCLME and its fisheries resources,” explained Nguvauva. This in turn should be coupled with capacity building of human resources like training young scientists from Namibia, Angola and South Africa who can critically analyse the ocean’s future sustainability more effectively. “A shortage of skilled expertise in applied fisheries, analytical science and modelling is a serious gap that needs to be urgently addressed if we are to adopt the ecosystem approach to management and use effective adaptive strategies under increasing environmental uncertainty,” he added. Over the last decade, warming of the sea surface water and its rather different smell has also resulted in some fish stocks floating dead on the surface due to lack of oxygen in the marine ecosystem. Citing this as a concern, Dr Mick O’Toole said that the effects of the 10-year cycle of the Benguela El Nino experienced along the western coastline bordering Namibia, Angola and South Africa led to “nutrient poor water, low phytoplankton, very low recruitment and dead fish being washed up on shore.” Furthermore, the shifting of the tropical system southwards is causing the warm water to lessen hake growth and leading to decline of the African Penguin, as well as other bird species on Ichaboe Island at LÃÆ’Æ‘Æ‘ÃÆ”šÃ‚¼deritz. In 1994 the numbers of fur seals also plummeted from 220 000 to 100 000 but then slowly recovered, unlike marine life that remains on the low. O’Toole said, “even after a moratorium was set up years ago, the country has never regained its former biomass.” Further research shows that the lack of oxygen has culminated in a lot of toxic gases like sulphide, ammonium and nitrate, which practically kill the fish stocks. In relation to this, Chris Reason of the University of Cape Town said, “because of these less productive water conditions the survival of the fish larvae becomes less and are repressed. The fish ultimately gets trapped in a predator pit.” Meanwhile, Namibia’s neighbour Angola whose population highly depends on pelagic fish also experienced a decline in its sea resources. Although Angola experienced this situation slightly, they still allow Namibian vessels to catch in their waters. The pelagic fleet in 1996 stood at 42 vessels and it declined to 16 in 2004. General Director of the Institute of Fisheries Research and representative of the Angola BCLME Francisca Delgado said that the warm and cold merging of the seawater due to the Benguela Front had great impact on the distribution and availability of the marine living resources. “In the last five years the pelagic resources in the northern Benguela is showing a declining trend on the abundance and growth that has a socio-economic impact for Angola and Namibia,” said Delgado. At the end of the two-day workshop, the experts will again sit for another three days for the Benguela Environment Fisheries Interaction and Training Programme (BENEFIT) to deliberate on regional developments, tabling reports on the status of the Benguela current commissions and its implications as well as recent developments in South East Atlantic Fisheries Organisation (SEAFO).