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BATTLE FOR LAKE MALAWI FISH: Commercial fishers’ ‘arrogance’ angers beach committees

There is tension between communities and commercial fishers popularly known as ‘trawlers’ over management and conservation of Lake Malawi fish.

The trawlers are using sophisticated equipment to undermine the authority of local structures such as Beach Village Committees (BVCs) who are empowered to manage the environment and fisheries’ resources at local level.

A few weeks ago, the trawlers almost killed one BVC member who was on patrol.

Department of Fisheries, which is under the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development, confirmed the conflict on across all lake shore districts.

The department said the development is contributing to environmental degradation and depletion of small fish on the water body.

We learnt about the disagreements on Wednesday when members of the Association of Environmental Journalists (AEJ) who were on a fisheries training which was funded by Usaid visited Msaka Beach in Mangochi.

Chairperson for Chimphamba BVC, Leornald Tangonena Banda said the committees’ efforts to bring back fish into the lake through controlled fishing has been in vain because the trawlers are fishing on the restricted areas illegally.

“They seem to be untouchables and are using sophisticated equipment. This is why they over powered us and almost killed our colleague. It’s difficult for us to get them arrested because they tell us that they are connected to the big shots in the fisheries department,” he said.

Apparently, the BVCs are legitimately established by the fisheries department and they play the role of extension workers.

A letter dated November 11, 2016 addressed to the trawlers from Chimphamba and Ndomo BVCs threatens the trawlers to stop fishing along Msaka beach and return to their designated area.

“Mukapezekanso kuno ku Msaka zomwe zizakuonekeleni zizakhala zomwezo (If you continue to fish near Msaka beach don’t bother us with whatever you will encounter),” reads the letter which is in a forceful tone, which the members signed to.

The fisheries department said commercial fishers (the trawlers) have high investment levels into the trade and can harvest two tones of fish per day.

Group Village Headman Chimphamba in Traditional Authority Nkumba said the trawlers are using fishing materials that are sweeping away all the fish including the small ones which were supposed to be left out to grow.

“Their way of catching fish is illegal. They are supposed to be two pairs in a radius of 10 to 20 kilometers, but you will find that there are more than 12 pairs in areas they are not supposed to be,” he said, adding that they are disturbing fish breeding space interventions which local structures are trying to put in place.

The GVH said the trawlers are undermining traditional leaders and other local structures like the BVCs.

“They feel big because they have sophisticated equipment. We are trying but we need the department of fisheries’ intervention because they tell us in the face that we are nothing,” he said

Deputy Director of Fisheries, Steve Donda, said this is a long standing issue. It began after commercial fishermen formed an association and it seems there is tension because the two do not understand their roles and regulations.

“Commercial fishers aren’t supposed to be coming to the shore. But because they feel they can threaten them with sophisticated boats, there is tension. But they are aware of their licence conditions on what they are supposed to or not do,” he said.

Donda added: “It’s true that they aren’t behaving in a way they are supposed to. We have instituted forums to remind them on various fishing regulations. This includes issues to do fishing without affecting rights of small scale fishers.”

He disclosed that this tension is not unique to Mangochi but to other districts along the lake as well, saying the trend is a threat to nature and the environment.

Donda further said commercial fishers are supposed to fish at the depth of 18 metres, so they are allowed to fish from 5am to 5pm so that small scale fishers can go and fish in the night in order to minimise such conflicts.

The Fisheries’ Policy 2016-2021 says there is need to increase annual fish production from capture fisheries from 90,000 tonnes to 110,000 tonnes, to strengthen capacity of participatory fisheries management regimes.

Ministry of Economic Planning and Development annual economic report of 2016 indicates that fisheries contribute to four percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

It says in 2015, the industry earned 144,000 metric tonnes of fish amounting to K108 billion.

The fisheries industry is a source of livelihood of 10 percent of Malawi’s 17 million people, according to government records.

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