Tuna fishing industry under threat

28 April 2017
Author   Chamwe Kaira

Tuna stocks in Namibian waters are on a rapid decline, a development that has been attributed to oil and gas exploration activities close to fishing grounds, the Windhoek Observer has learned.

According to Dave Russell, a freelance fisheries consultant, who has worked for both oil drilling companies such as Shell and marine phosphate mining companies, a recent survey has revealed that the tuna industry in Namibia has gone down from catches of around 4,000 tonnes in 2011, to around 300 tonnes in the 2016-2017 fishing season.

This drop, which started around 2011, is said to have coincided with an increase in oil and gas exploration seismic surveys in Namibian waters.

“Due to a lot of seismic oil exploration just south of the Namibian border and in southern Namibian waters, there have been seismic surveys close to Namibia’s tuna grounds every year since,” Russell said.

Plans by Shell Namibia Upstream BV to start drilling for oil offshore Namibia later this year, has renewed fears of a further decline in fish stocks, especially tuna.

Russell said although oil exploration drilling is good for the Namibian economy, it should not be “at the expense of the Namibian marine environment, as that will also negatively impact the fishing industry”.

He told the Windhoek Observer that, unlike marine phosphate mining, oil drilling has minimal environmental impact, as it is well controlled. It involves literally drilling a pipe deep into the ground (2,000 metres from the surface) and no trawl fishing currently goes that deep.

However, seismic surveys result in very loud underwater bangs occurring every 10 to 15 seconds for the length of the survey and those explosions scare away fish and consequently disrupt commercial fishing operations, he said.

He was quick to point though that it is “not well understood how bad these impacts are”.

Shell Namibia Upstream BV plans to spend up to US$100 million on the exploration activities.

The subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell plc holds a 90 percent interest in Petroleum Exploration Licence 39 (PEL 39), while the National Petroleum Corporation of Namibia (NAMCOR) holds the remaining 10 percent.

PEL 39 is located adjacent to the southernmost Namibian offshore border with South Africa. Shell undertook a 3-D seismic survey in the northern portion of the licence area from October to early December 2014.

Based on the analysis of this seismic data, Shell is proposing to drill one or possibly two exploration wells in the northern portion of the licence area to determine whether identified geological structures or ‘prospects’ contain oil or gas in potentially commercial extractable amounts.

Shell expects a disruption in fishing operations and loss of access to fishing grounds due to the 500-metre safety exclusion area around the drilling unit.

In the early exploration phase, Shell said that it consciously avoided the peak fishing catch period, demonstrating that oil and gas exploration and Namibia’s fishing industry can co-exist

Russell said Shell consulted the Namibian tuna industry when it undertook its seismic survey resulting in the current oil exploration drilling environmental impact assessment, and conducted the survey as early as possible in the tuna season, and also moved away from Tripp Seamount where most of the tuna is caught, as the survey progressed.

“The acquisition of the 3-D seismic survey has shown that the geological characteristics between PEL39 and the Kudu Gas Field area are quite different. However, the fact that hydrocarbons were discovered in the Kudu Gas Field area is encouraging evidence that commercial quantities of hydrocarbons could be present in PEL39,’’ Shell said in documents seen by the Windhoek Observer.

SLR Environmental Consulting Namibia has been appointed by Shell as the independent Environmental Assessment Practitioner to undertake a full Scoping and Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process for the proposed project.

As part of the drilling, EIA independent marine ecology and fisheries studies will be undertaken. This will include a mitigation management plan to control the potential impact of Shell’s exploration activities.

Shell Namibia originally explored the Kudu Gas Field. PEL 39 is not far from there.

In early 2014, Shell returned to upstream operations in Namibia and established an office in Windhoek as a holder of a deep-water licence some 250 km offshore, on the border with South Africa measuring approximately 12,000 km².

Shell will decide whether the onshore logistics base would be located in either the Port of Lüderitz or the Port of Walvis Bay. The preferred option is Lüderitz due to its proximity to the licence area, the company said.

Meanwhile, Russell said the impacts of marine phosphate mining are a different ballgame, as it involves high-volume dredging of the seabed.

He said one company alone is planning to dredge up to five million tonnes of seabed a year, with around 10 percent or 500,000 tonnes of this, dropping back into the water as fine sediments that will slowly float to the bottom.

He added that marine phosphate mining is a bulk-mining industry occurring over 200 metres under the sea.

“We need to remember that any negative environmental impacts may not be seen for many years, and equally by then it may be very hard to turn them around,” Russell cautioned.

Government has been inviting international oil companies to apply for petroleum exploration licences in Namibia. So far, the mines ministry has issued one production licence, 35 exploration licences and four reconnaissance licences.


The Windhoek Observer is an English-language weekly newspaper, published in Namibia by Paragon Investment Holding. It is the country's oldest and largest circulating weekly.

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