Anxiety in ruined fish sanctuaries
By Yohane Symon:
By 6am, children as young as five-years-old are playing in fishing boats and canoes that languidly float on the calm waters of Msaka Fishing Bay in Traditional Authority Nankumba, Mangochi District.
Schools are closed just like the fishing season on Lake Malawi, which presents an opportunity for the little ones to play in the boats and canoes left at the bay as their owners wait for the opening of the next fishing season in March.
Nearby, men sit under a shade of mosquito nets and reeds as they repair damaged fishing gear that has supported millions of lives, including 38-year-old Ntapu Ndau.
Ndau has been a fisher for the past 23 years after inheriting fishing equipment from his parents. Like several children in Msaka, he learnt the trade through accompanying his father on fishing trips.
But Ndau now doubts if his children will be able to survive on fishing in the next 10 years if the current trend in the fishing sector is not corrected in time.
“About 10 years ago, fishing was profitable and was giving people millions of kwacha within a month. The houses and shops you see here [in Msaka] were all built from fishing businesses,” Ndau says.
The fisher, however, notes that many people in his area are now struggling to earn enough from fishing as catches keep dwindling.
Parents are even withdrawing children from the fishing business due to the industry’s bleak future.
“Previously, we used to have few fishers plying their trade here. But, now, we have about 180 registered fishers, some with multiple fishing boats. This has put a lot of pressure on the fish,” Ndau says.
To improve their catches, Ndau says, some fishers are resorting to use of fishing gear proscribed by regulations.
For instance, he explains, the law-breakers use mosquito nets, which capture young fish not yet ideal to be taken out of the lake.
“Though we check every boat before it leaves the shore, we have realised that most fishers show the permitted nets but insert the mosquito nets when they are on the lake,” Msaka Beach Village Committee (BVC) secretary Philip Mpande says.
According to Mpande, the BVC has been instrumental in developing bylaws to guide fishing activities in the area.
“But we still struggle with commercial fishers who use trawlers because they are politically connected. They freely fish in areas reserved for breeding without being reprimanded,” he states.
Mangochi has about 55 licensed commercial fishers, but officials say the figure of those commercially catching the delicacy is way much higher as some ply their trade without licences.
With support from United States Agency for International Development, through Pact Malawi, fishers at Msaka Bay are engaging in various activities to save the fish remaining on that section of the lake.
“We are creating artificial breeding places for fish by dumping damaged boats and some tree trunks into the lake. The problem is that commercial fishers are destroying these sanctuaries,” Mpande says.
On average, Malawi produces about 125,000 metric tonnes (mt) of fish from the country’s water bodies annually. But the catch is dominated by smaller fish which apparently have little economic value.
Catches of chambo and other big fish, which hovered around 25,000mt 25 years ago, have slumped to around 5,000mt yearly the past decade due to illegal fishing practices in Lake Malawi.
The decline threatens a sector that supports 1.5 million people along the supply and value chains.
“The quality of fish that we are producing now is not that impressive compared to what was the case 25 years ago. It is a critical situation for Malawians who depend on fishing for their survival,” fisheries researcher Esau Chisale says.
He blames the crisis in the sector on overfishing, absence of clear policy direction on fisheries management and the use of prohibited equipment by small and commercial fishers.
“Fish is our major source of proteins and a lot of people earn a living through the sector. But we don’t have comprehensive policies that provide for the growth of the sector,” Chisale states.
He suggests cage fish farming as one way of helping reducing pressure on fish in the freshwater lake.
Chisale further posits that increasing funding to district fisheries offices (DFOs) for monitoring activities on the lake can rescue the troubled sector.
Mangochi DFO is working with a number of partners who are providing resources to help the office implement activities aimed at restoring fish in the lake.
District Fisheries Officer Neverson Msusa says his office is currently helping BVCs to formulate bylaws which should help to improve the quantity of fish in the lake.
“At least, the fishers themselves are feeling the pinch of dwindling catches from the lake; so we are allowing them to propose bylaws which we can adopt,” Msusa says.
He cites the closing of the lake for four months now when, in the past, it would be closed for just two months, as a positive initiative in saving the fish there.
“Further, unlike in the past, commercial fishers are now being included in the closed season. This allows the fish to breed,” Msusa explains.
He hopes DFOs will eventually have powers to license and regulate commercial fishing in line with local experiences and trends which may not be sufficiently appreciated at central level.