Fish continues to decline in the country’s water bodies as population boom, unemployment, illegal fishing and lack of enforcement of regulations connive to squeeze out the remaining little fish. As if that is not enough, YOHANE SYMON has, in this Friday Shaker established that politically connected fishers, who are untouchable, contribute to the depletion of fish as they ply their trade in zones reserved for breeding.
About 40 years ago, it was an easy decision for the now 53-year-old Ali Ayilu of Mtimbuka Village, Traditional Authority Mponda in Mangochi District, to drop out of school so as to concentrate on fishing on Lake Malawi.
Life was simple. Fish was in abundance. Even women could fetch fish for relish. Children could fish enough for domestic use and for sell. In those days, small fish such as usipa was irrelevant.
Now Ayilu regrets to have dropped out of school. His fortunes have changed due to dwindling fish stocks in the lake.
He cannot even support his family of six, with his three children dropping out of school as Ayilu cannot afford to pay fees.
Ayilu’s income has shrunk from K300,000 five years ago to K50,000. He has even sold some property so as to remain in competition with other fishers.
His story of despair is shared by thousands of people who directly depend on the fish business in most lakeshore districts.
“I have seen it all. I have witnessed things falling apart in my life and those of other fishers. We have lost almost everything we realised from the lake due to fish. The lake has turned into a graveyard of our wealth,” Ayilu says.
Ayilu is among 200,000 families who survive on fishing but now face a bleak future.
Fish remains the only readily available source of income for most people in Mangochi, Salima, Nkhatabay, Nkhotokota and Karonga districts.
Fish also provides the country’s population with proteins and, of late, reports indicate that most children are stunted due to lack of proteins.
But all this is happening when Malawi’s annual fish catch has reached 120,000 metric tonnes. In 2017/18, the country recorded 114,00 metric tonnes.
The annual tonnage, according to fisheries researcher, Esau Chisale, is deceiving as it gives an impression that the country is producing more fish annually compared to 20 years ago when the annual catch was 70,000 metric tonnes.
“The truth is that over 70 percent of the fish we are catching is usipa. Chambo is less than 10 percent. This means that we have lost fish, which have a high economic value, such as chambo,” Chisale says.
Chambo’s annual harvest is now 4,000 metric tonnes compared to between 30,000 to 40,000 metric tonnes 25 years ago.
Currently, a kilogramme of chambo sells at K2,550 on the regular market while that of usipa and other smaller fish like ndunduma costs K800.
“However, we have observed that there is also massive under reporting of chambo catch. Most commercial fishers are afraid to report their full catch because they fish in restricted areas where chambo breeds,” he says.
Chisale blames poor enforcement of laws as contributing to declining fish stocks in the lake.
He says poor funding of the Fisheries Department makes it hard for the government officials to monitor fishers who ply their trade in the lake.
“Another difficult thing is that, according to rules, commercial fishers are licensed at the headquarters while small-scale fishers are licensed at the district level. This makes it hard for district fisheries officers to caution illegal operations of commercial fishers,” he says.
Politics also contributes to illegal fishing as the government officers fear politicians when enforcing laws.
Currently, the government has closed Lake Malombe to fishing but people are still fishing. The situation is likely to be the same for Lake Malawi which will be closed from November 2018 to January 1 2019.
“Every year, the government closes the lake for two months to allow the fish to breed. But the closure of the lake is only applicable to small-scale fishers and not commercial fishers,” says local fisherman Francis Kaipa of Nkope Fishing Bay.
It appears the authorities entertain illegal fishing by commercial and small-scale traders.
After visiting several fishing bays, The Daily Times established that almost 80 percent of small-scale fishers use banned fishing gears that have been adjusted to suit the size of available small fish. This means that fishers are harvesting immature fish.
Commercial fishers who use big fishing vessels have also joined the illegal practice, with most of them plying their trade in areas reserved for fish breeding.
Regulation time for big fishing vessels on Lake Malawi starts from 6am to 6pm.
While small-scale fishers that use fishing gears, locally called Chilimira for catching usipa and chambo, and those that use Matchera, start from 6pm up to dawn.
But our investigations show that most fishing vessels leave for fishing expectations between 2am and 3am so as to start fishing in restricted areas before going to the designated fishing zones.
These practices have led to the extinction of fish of high economic value such as chambo.
Additionally, commercial fishers, who were once targeting bigger fish, have adjusted their fishing gear to catch small fish which are in abundance.
“Initially, trawlers were only interested in big fish such as chambo and kampango. Now we are all going for small fish. They have also reduced the size of their nets to suit the situation.
“But we are surprised that the government is allowing them to continue breaking the laws. But the same government is busy introducing by-laws targeting only us, small-scale fishers,” Ayilu says.
While local fishers feel that the government is not doing enough to monitor the lake, fisheries officials face other challenges of dealing with fishers who work for top government officials and politicians.
“Almost all the fishing vessels on the lake are owned by politicians and senior government officials. When we find them fishing illegally, the fishers refer us to the owners of the fishing boats, who are politicians connected to the government and some senior civil servants. That is how it ends,” says a Mangochi-based fisheries monitoring officer who refused to be named.
Parliamentary Committee on Agriculture Chairperson, Joseph Chidanti-Malunga, blames the government for failing to provide enough resources to help the Fisheries Department to conduct enforcement patrols regularly.
“Due to lack of resources, the Fisheries Department is failing to patrol the lake. Instead, the issue of enforcement has been left in the hands of beach village committees. But these are also failing to catch commercial fishers because we have established that most commercial fishing boats are owned by well-connected politicians,” he says, adding that the lake has been turned into a “free for-all.zone”
He says, recently, members of his committee, while conducting patrols on the lake in Mangochi, caught commercial boats belonging to a politician fishing in a restricted area.
“We took this matter to court and the person was fined only K400,000. These pitiful fines are e n couraging illegal fishing on the lake because commercial fishers make a lot of money when they go into restricted areas; so, to them, K400,000 is affordable even if they are caught every day,” Malunga says.
He, therefore, calls for review of the Fisheries Act to increase the amount of fines as well as empower district fisheries offices to license all fishers in the lake unlike now when commercial fishers are licensed at the head office.
Additionally, Malunga says there is need for the government to provide more boats for reinforcement, saying the issue of illegal fishing is big and cannot be solved without huge investments by the government.
An official at Mangochi District Fisheries office reveals that the department receives insufficient Other Recurrent Transaction funds from the government which makes it hard to channel the money to the reinforcement department.
Every month, the Mangochi office gets an average of K600,000 to go towards administration, aquaculture, enforcement and extension services.
“We do not conduct patrols regularly because we get inadequate funding from government. But when we conduct an enforcement patrol, we catch between two to four commercial fishers plying in prohibited areas. But, most of times, they threaten us and we release them. For small-scale fishers, all of them are illegal activities such that, at one go, we can confiscate about a 100 of the illegal gears,” he says.
He also says, currently, the Mangochi office is using a small aluminum patrol boat which puts lives at risk when conducting patrols when it is windy.
The government seems equally concerned about the dwindling fish levels on Lake Malawi.
Opening the Sixth Pan-African Fish and Fisheries Association meeting in Mangochi last week, Minister of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development, Joseph Mwanamvekha, observed that the government is aware of illegal fishing activities on the country’s water bodies.
“Despite the valuable contribution of the fisheries sector [to the country’s economy], there are challenges that have negatively affected realisation of its economic benefits.
“We have had declining catch levels, especially for chambo and other fish species, due to issues like overfishing, non-compliance to fishing laws, habitat degradation and climate change,” Mwanamvekha says.
He says the government is pursuing various interventions within the fisheries sector in line with polices and strategies such as National Fisheries and Aquaculture Policy, which is aimed at addressing the challenges which the sector faces.
Information from the ministry indicates that Malawi’s current per capita fish consumption has declined by half from 14 kilogrammes since the 1980s.
This, the minister says, can be improved if players in the sector work towards improving the aquaculture sub-sector which is growing at a snail’s pace despite its potential.
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