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Fishing by-laws making an impact

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Bizaro ailesi recalls the yesteryears, when with only K10,000, he was regarded as one of the best fish vendors around Makawa or known as Kela Beach Village in Mangochi, where he plies his trade.

Today, he needs over K50,000 just to buy a single crate of fish – utaka.

“Then, fish was in its plentiful, we could get all the fish we need here at Kela Beach [others call it Makawa]; this time around, we need to dig deeper in our pockets to get the fish we sell in Limbe Market or elsewhere just because fish is scarce,” says Sailesi, adding fishmongers like him have to travel to other beaches in Mangochi or other districts to scout for fish.

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“In 2004, when I was starting my business, we used to buy each crate of fish at K1,000 or in some rare cases, K2,000. Things have changed now, you need to have a lot of money to venture into this business and it is even worse for those trading in chambo,” he says.

It is not only fishmongers who recall the happy earlier years of fishing.

Chrasswell Mhone, a fisher plying his trade on several beaches of Lake Malawi, also has a story to tell. The owner of Mwayi Wanga Boat mostly fishes usipa. However, he says these days, they have to trek around the lake – to many beaches – so as to get real schools of fish to cast their nets.

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“There is no longer plenty of fish as we used to have, it is a sad scenario for us,” says Mhone.

The fisher and fishmonger agree that regulation of fishing periods and adherence to by-laws is indeed important if the fish business is to thrive in the country.

What then made things change? What has suddenly made Malawi lose its pride of a country that produces good fish stocks? What is happening to the chambo – which was the pride of Malawi?

“The overfishing that has been happening in this lake is obviously a major cause and concern to some of us who depend on fishing for our livelihood. It is also true that some of our fellow fishers have no regard of by-laws or regulations that bind us not to catch small fish or use fishing gear that catches small fish in their breeding state,” says Mhone.

Like the two, others interviewed along the beaches of Lake Malawi stress that if they were allowed to go back down the memory lane into the reality, they would have been better citizens.

“We should have realised that the importance of order against overfishing and not sneak into the lake and fish when government has suspended fishing for the sake of breeding, we should have adhered to that,” says Kazembe Itende, a counsellor for Village Head Kela.

But after realising that things were getting worse, the locals followed the advice of Centre for Environmental Policy Advocacy (Cepa) and other stakeholders, which, under the Fisheries Integration of the Society and Habitats [Fish], have been propagating social and ecological resilience of communities and freshwater ecosystems; through sustainable fisheries co-management.

Itende says through the Fish initiative, they realised that, as communities, they needed to be proactive if fishing is to be sustained to the future generations.

“We decided to adopt the concept of Beach Village Committees [BVCs] that have come up with such things like by-laws which have an impact in the improvement of fish business in the area. For instance, we community leaders work with the committees to ensure that there is no abuse to by-laws, overfishing and using of wrong fishing gear – like mosquito nets – is now being policed,” he says.

Edward Kela, Kela BVC Chair, says some of BVCs’ by-laws include guidelines for how people and fishers conduct themselves both on water and on the beaches.

“For instance, fishers are strictly policed not to use gear [nets] that can catch small fish and also not to catch fish on breeding grounds. On the ground [beaches], everyone must adhere to not abusing the beach health-wise, for instance, no one is supposed to use the lake for toilet or washing soiled baby nappies,” says Kela.

Those that breach the by-laws are made to pay heavy penalties.

“For instance, fishers found using banned gear pay up to K50,000 in penalties; and we make sure they pay,” says Manivesta Kamanga, Vice- Chair of the BVC.

Like his friends, he says they got drilled in how to run the BVC under the initiative of Fish, and have high regard for the advocacy skills imparted on them by Cepa.

Cepa programme officers (advocacy) Stanley Mvula and Stephen Chikusa say the aim of the Fish project is to ensure that user communities ably co-manage the ecosystems and fishing in general.

“Fish is a government of Malawi/Usaid five-year project that is operating in four major lakes in Malawi – lakes Malawi, Chilwa, Chiuta and Malombe. Basically, it is operating in four districts of Mangochi, Machinga, Balaka and Zomba and the middle Shire River areas,” says Mvula.

And, according to Chikusa, just like the sentiments of the communities, the by-laws are bearing fruits in that the communities are now able to police the wrongs that people do – that contribute to the dwindling of fish stocks in the lakes.

“Just like the members of communities observe, the by-laws are becoming central to the co-management of the ecosystems and, in the long run, fish stocks would improve,” says Chikusa.

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