Namibian fishing industry concerned about Sandpiper seabed mining

By Adam Hartman | All Africa

The Namibian Hake Association (NHA) is concerned about the negative impact the envisaged Sandpiper Phosphate Project south-west off Walvis Bay would have on the fishing industry.

This is contrary to suggestions by Namibian Marine Phosphates (a joint venture between Australia’s Minemakers Limited and UCL Resources Limited, and Namibia’s Tungeni Investments), responsible for Sandpiper, that the impact will be negligible.

“The scientific data available on the environmental impacts of phosphate mining is not enough. Without robust site specific research, any assumptions made on whether or not phosphate mining will impact our fisheries do not hold credibility,” said NHA chairman Matti Amukwa.

He reiterated Fisheries Minister Bernhard Esau’s concern expressed during World Oceans Day held in Swakopmund last month that:

“Namibia cannot afford to risk its international reputation by jeopardising the future of both its fishing industry and the Benguela Current ecosystem by rushing through the decision process on marine phosphate mining”.

The repercussions could be “irreversible”, according to Amukwa, involving reduced fish stocks that will result in decreased total allowable catches, and consequently threatening the more than 13 000 workers in the industry.

“There are no fences in the sea and the Benguela current is powerful, so any damage has the potential to drift a long way,” he said.

Preliminary studies have indicated that of the 5,5 million tonnes of phosphate to be mined annually, about 10 per cent will return to the sea as sediment. Available information is insufficient as to how these sediments will interact with the Benguela current and effect the water quality of the area.

The Benguela ecosystem is characterised by low water column oxygen levels near the sea bed. A concern is how the mining will increase the low oxygen levels in this area.

Sediments (that dissolve the water of oxygen) released into the water column through the mining activities, will lower the water column oxygen. The frequency of the dredging and dumping of sediment will also determine whether an area had sufficient time for the water column to mix and dilute the contents of the sediment plume so that oxygen levels return to normal.

According to Amukwa, hake can survive in waters with relatively low oxygen compared to other fish, however at levels with severe shortage of oxygen the fish become “stressed”.

Amukwa stressed that only after thorough on-site data has been collected and analysed in a scientifically acceptable manner, open to scrutiny by internationally respected scientists, can credible assessments be made on marine phosphate mining.

Recently Barnabas Uugwenga of Namibian Marine Phosphates stated that phosphate was not poisonous, and that the company is committed to the responsible utilisation of and to “ensure minimal impacts”. He said phosphate was “harmless”.

NMP is pushing for the realisation of the mine that will deliver to a global market with a growing demand for fertiliser phosphate. The mine licence will be valid for 20 years, but the non-renewable resource of seabed phosphate in the mine licence area has the potential to supply the phosphate for 300 years.

This means nothing to those concerned, considering that fish is a non-renewable resource that can last “forever” if managed properly. Other contradictions were that the mine will provide jobs to about 200 people compared to the fishing industry’s more than 13 000.

Minister Esau said that his ministry was “well aware” of the serious impact the proposed phosphate project could have on the fishing industry and marine environment.

The Confederation of Namibian Fishing Associations (CNFA) earlier this year stated that it wanted a proper Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) NMP proposed project.

“We consider that NMP’s mining license is a serious threat to the fishing industry without a rigorous EIA based on well-researched data,”

CNFA chairman Silvanus Kathindi said when approached for comment at the time.

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