Fisheries sector in Malawi has been riddled with a lot of challenges for far too long. However, visits to some beaches on the southern tip of Lake Malawi revealed that not all is doom and gloom. Local champions, supported by institutional partnerships, are putting up effective structures to tackle some of the challenge affecting the sector. CHARLES MKOKA reports.
Ben James has seen fish harvests at both their prime and at low levels.
He is a resident of Malembo beach in Mangochi, born and raised within the area.
He recalls that five decades ago, the lake gave fishers diversity in terms of catches; from Utaka, Chambo to Kadyakolo in real bulky quantities.
“Fishermen who came to catch fish simply brought nsima, as a bait, in a bottle of Vaseline. The fish would swim in large numbers towards the bottle. Alternatively, we would light fire and Usipa would follow. In that way, we simply caught the fish easily in bulk,” James, now getting close to 70 years of age recalls.
Today, fish species that used to be a delicacy for most visitors to Lake Malawi such as Chambo, Kadyakolo, Nkhalala and Fwilili have been a rare sight since 1990, according to Aweza Chilembwa, a female member of Malembo Beach Village Committee (BVC), born in 1972.
“The absence of these species means we are missing out on protein. But also, some of our kids will never see such fish again because what is now prevalent is bonya (young Usipa fish),” Chilembwa says.
Fish species dwindling
A 2015 research by the Department of Fisheries and the Usaid-funded Fisheries Integration of Society and Habitats (Fish) shows that in addition to Chambo, Usipa was also showing signs of decline as the prevailing exploitation rates were higher than the maximum exploitation rate.
Overfishing caused by an ever-increasing number of fishers is one of the problems.
For example, there were 10, 390 gillnets recorded in 2005. This number has grown to 70, 227 by 2020.
Within the same period, the number of fishers grew by roughly one percent per year while ownership of gillnets per fisher grew at 38.4 percent per year.
All these developments, coupled with a growing population, have made per capita annual fish consumption to average around only 9.5 kg in 2020, which is below 13.2kg as recommended by the World Health Organisation.
Affected economic value
In 2020, the sector directly employed over 65,160 fishers and indirectly an additional 15,465 fish farmers.
As a key economic sector, it continues to support close to 500,000 people who are involved in fish processing, marketing, boat building and engine repair.
The fish value chain supports over 1.6 million people and makes substantial contribution to their livelihoods.
But the impact of the tumbling numbers of fish stocks can be felt on the ground now.
Lukiya Mavungu operates a grass-thatched restaurant right at Nangoma beach. She hails from Group Village Headman Mwachande, Traditional Authority Mwachande close to Mangochi Boma.
She went to the beach in March 2021 to operate the business. But things are not working according to her expectation.
“The plan was that I should raise school fees for my children from this restaurant. Unfortunately, there is literally no catches coming out of the lake,” she laments.
The decline in fish stocks has been attributed to a number of factors, including poor compliance to fishing regulations due to ineffective Beach Village Committees (BVCs), low government funding and corruption, among other factors.
To this effect, there has been need for key and influential champion interventions and the need for partnerships to improve fisheries governance and regulations in the waters.
In this spirit, T/A Namkumba, for example, has been hard on the BVCs under his jurisdiction, reminding them of their role in safeguarding fish resources.
The BVCs – Malembo, Msaka, Namaso, Nangoma and Nkhudzi –have various sub-committees for visitors, natural resources management of waste and enforcement of rules to deter school-going children from patronising the beaches.
And he tackles corruption decisively. In one act of such crackdowns, he fired the BVC chair at Nangoma on allegations of corruption.
“I told the BVC to elect a replacement following his firing after acts of corruption. I also ordered Village Headman Nangoma, who committed the offence for the first time, to pay a goat as a warning. If he continues, I won’t hesitate but fire him,” Nankumba says.
Restoring fisheries productivity
With such efforts, all is not gloom and doom.
The fisheries department and other partners are implementing various interventions to address exploitation and governance challenges.
The Usaid-supported Restoring Fisheries for Sustainable Livelihoods in Lake Malawi (Refresh) is working with the Department of Fisheries to enhance fisheries regulatory frameworks, integrating sound science, decentralisation and enforcement, sustainable financing, and partnerships and alliances to scale up ecosystem-based fisheries management.
The BVCs are central to these efforts. According to Willima Dothi, Pact Monitoring and Evaluation Officer, Mangochi boasts of 114 BVCs.
To ensure sustainable fisheries conservation, a number of initiatives are being implemented on the ground to ensure BVCs take ownership of the resources and are self-reliant. They generate income through activities such as collecting fees from fishing landing, use of toilets and fish drying racks.
A total of 64 community-led fish sanctuaries, with areas ranging between 2 and 110 hectares, have been established in south east and south west arms of Lake Malawi. Forty percent of these sanctuaries were set up by the local communities themselves.
And surveys conducted twice every year from 2016 to 2019 in 33 sampled sanctuaries show that biodiversity index increased by 32 percent and total number of species increased by 24 percent.
Monitoring commercial trawlers
The Department of Fisheries in collaboration with Refresh and Fisheries Resilience for Malawi (Firm) project funded by the Global Environmental Facility are also ensuring that there is effective enforcement of regulations for commercial trawlers.
To this effect, they have installed vessel-monitoring systems (VMS) on all 42 commercial fishing vessels.
This will ensure that trawlers are fishing within their licensed areas – and not in shallow waters where they can damage aquatic vegetation, which is critical to fish breeding.
The Department of Forestry is using results from monitoring trawl surveys to inform the issuance of fishing licences to trawler owners in different areas of Lake Malawi.
Director of Fisheries Friday Njaya says the department has been promoting participatory fisheries management since early 1990s.
“We have seen positive results in some ecosystems like Lake Chilwa which periodically dries up and on some areas on Lake Malawi.
“Establishment of fish sanctuary areas is also one of the strategies that is promoting resource recovery especially if they are no-go areas and are large enough, which can also safeguard biodiversity,” Njaya says.
Clearly, partnerships and collaborative ecosystem-based fisheries management interventions are helping to restore fish stocks in Lake Malawi and ensure their sustainable utilisation in future.
Perhaps, the children of James and Chilembwa will have a chance to see the iconic fish species from the lake in future.