By Andrew Saukani:
Local communities and aquaculture experts agree that fish farming in the Shire Highlands districts of Thyolo, Mulanje and Phalombe remain constrained by common challenges that require similar solutions to unleash its growth potential.
Ironically, fish farming began in Malawi in early 1906 with the introduction of trout farms in Mulanje and Thyolo districts where problems now persist.
Fish farmers visited recently in the districts expressed their desire to increase fish farming production but current challenges are restricting their potential.
The Shire Highlands districts are characterised by adequate perennial water sources, good soils, favourably cool climate and transverse terrain ideal for fish farming.
However, exclusive interviews with fish farmers and district fisheries officers exposes peculiar challenges.
Chrissy Banda, fisheries officer for Thyolo, says the district can become the country’s leading aquaculture hub if it were not for land limitations for pond construction and expansion.
The district has 450 fish farmers owning 635 fish ponds either on individual or communal basis. The ponds are small to meet standard size of 400-meter squire.
Banda bemoans, “There is a complex and serious land problem here as huge tracts of prime land and streams that could facilitate expansion of fish farming are owned by tea estates and are regarded as private land”.
Margret Beni and John Henry Pindani, both fish farmers from Kautuka Village, Traditional Authority Mchilamwera in the district, cited the same problem which they described as frustrating potential growth of fish farming and other agronomic activities for them.
Pindani said people in the district are land poor, most of them with a land holding capacity of between 0.3 and 0.5 hectors per household. Despite several years of existence, large tea estates abandoned stocking fish in their reservoir ponds.
In spite of being in the same ecological zone as the other two districts, Mulanje district exhibits high potential with a distribution of 665 fish farmers owning over 984 fish ponds – the highest in the country.
While land is also a problem in Mulanje, fish farmers are battling high predation rates and theft of fish in ponds.
District Fisheries Officer for Mulanje, Clesensio Likongwe, admits the problem which he describes as deplorable and discouraging to their efforts to maintain a lead in the number of fish farmers in the country.
“It concerns us receiving reports and complaints of fish theft from ponds. We have trained fish farmers on predation control measures but the problem is of theft occasioned by human elements. We are engaging all Area Development Committees to formulate by laws to tackle theft of fish from the ponds,” Likongwe said.
In addition, fish farmers interviewed in Mulanje expressed reservation on the quality of fingerlings manifested by stunted growth.
In response, Likongwe said Chisitu fisheries station cannot cope with the huge demand for fingerlings, hence through various project intervention they are promoting individual private hatchery operators to produce rendalli or Oreochromis fingerlings under strict biosecurity protocols.
Phalombe has a slightly different terrain and agro-climatic condition and it faces own fish farming related challenges. Much of the areas ideal for fish farming are susceptible to flash floods, resulting in destruction of fish ponds.
But fish farming is appetising in Phalombe as communities do not have a continuous supply of fish from Lake Chilwa and Mpoto Lagoon which are closed at certain point of the year and are prone to drying up.
Chimwemwe Tembo, fisheries officer for Phalombe district, said lack of quality fingerlings and fish feed are constraining growth of the sector in the district. He appealed for assistance from partners.
Phalombe has 365 fish farmers but the numbers could have been higher had it not been for the devastating effects of Cyclone Idai which destroyed ponds and they need to be rehabilitated for production.
Aquaculture experts such suggest that to enhance existing potential in the Shire Highlands districts, there is need for adoption of high-tech and intensive aquaculture production systems that defy existing land limitations.
These include re -circulatory production system, mono sex tilapia, polyculture and use of containments such as happas and green houses for increased production within short periods.
However, fish farmers express skeptism, arguing that adoption of such technologies demands huge capital and skills investment which many farmers are lacking.
“We cannot talk of intelligent aquaculture production model in this context because it applies much of Internet of Things, artificial data computing to remotely control facilities and machinery for complete production and management operations” Banda said.