New Zealander Les Clark, won the 1997 B.R. Sen Award for his contribution as Chief Technical Advisor in successfully transforming the Namibian fisheries sector from a largely foreign activity to one of the country's key sectors, fully integrated in the Namibian society and economy. The Sen Award, created in 1967, is given annually to a field officer who has made an outstanding contribution in a country to which he or she is assigned. It consists of a US$5 000 prize, a scroll and a medal. Mr Clark talks about the ongoing project in Namibia.

Mr Clark, you helped set up a fishing sector from scratch. That must have been exciting.

Namibia was the last great fishing free for all. It was the last rich coastal fishing ground to be covered by a 200-mile fishing limit under the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention. I had helped set up 200-mile regimes in the island states of the South Pacific and Oman, so for me this was the last time I would ever get to do this. It was a fantastic opportunity.

Can you set the scene at Namibian independence in 1990?

It had a very small fisheries function. There was no real indigenous fishing industry, no ministry of fisheries, no legislation, not even stock surveillance. Most of the fish was caught and processed at sea by foreign factory trawlers, and simply transhipped or even landed at foreign ports, generating little benefit for Namibians.

Where did you start?

FAO has been working with the ruling party since before independence through the Council of Namibia, so when Swapo came to power it had already put a lot of thought into a fisheries policy. At the time, however, there was a strong feeling especially outside Namibia, but also to a degree inside the country, that Namibia lacked the capacity to properly harvest its resources and would need to depend on agreements with other nations to license foreign vessels. Namibia might well have sold rights to foreign fishing interests to simply carry on the operations of foreign factory trawler fishing, but the new government was committed to building a Namibian industry. It terminated licences to foreigners, and shortly after independence, helicopters were sent out to chase poachers, lowering policeman with guns on to the decks. They even set one ship on fire. They seized 12 expensive ships and that pretty well sent the message that Namibian waters belonged to Namibia.

A pretty dramatic beginning. But Namibia is mostly desert or semi-desert with few ports and without a fishing tradition. What raw material was available to build a fishing industry?

We developed a policy under which the government gave preference to Namibians, especially indigenous Namibians. There was an indigenous business class already, so the easiest thing to do was to restructure the board rooms by granting rights preferentially to companies that were Namibian controlled, and preferably controlled by previously disadvantaged Namibians. The sea part was harder since it takes 15 years to train a captain. But now in the bulk of Namibian fisheries there are more than 80 percent Namibian crews compared to 30 to 40 percent in 1990. In research and surveillance, the ministry made a major commitment to hiring and training Namibians, most of them without any real background with the sea. I should add we had excellent support for our project (Institutional Support in Fisheries Planning, Policy and Management) from Norway and other donors.

Was the government fully behind the project?

The government acted very effectively on the advice provided by the project. What is unusual is the sense of responsibility this government has to build a sustainable industry when they really need short-term economic gains.

Namibia is a country that has emerged from a long period of war. Its industries are very undeveloped, unemployment is over 40 percent, and the economy and society are characterized by cruel inequities that have to be addressed urgently. If anybody had a reason for seeking short-term gains from their fish stocks, it was Namibia. Instead they chose the long, hard road of rebuilding stocks. Seven years after independence there is still a long way to go but there are good signs of stock improvement.

Can you sum up seven years' worth of achievements?

The most striking achievement is the level of economic gains. From US$150 million worth of fisheries exports in 1990, the figure is up to US$400 million in 1997, about 25 percent of exports. It has the potential to double again once stocks have returned. The second major achievement has been in putting in place an effective conservation regime. At independence they decided to rebuild the stocks. So in 1990, they took only 60 000 tonnes of hake; in1997 they took 120 000 tonnes. Twenty years ago without any management at all they were taking 400 000 tonnes of hake a year. And with the cutbacks in fishing effort, there have also been measures introduced to conserve juveniles, such as increasing mesh sizes and stopping trawling in depths less than 200 metres to protect nursery grounds. Other achievements include extracting rents for government programmes, with the Namibian industry having to pay the highest fishing fees in the world, averaging 15 percent of landed value. And increasing the contribution of fish to regional food security. The horse mackerel fishery, which lands 300 000 to 400 000 tonnes per year, has produced a major change across southern Africa, where the fish is exported. It has forced down the price of beef and improved the food security situation among ordinary people.

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