Reflections on Malawi’s fisheries: road ahead

WORTHWHILE—More want fish than the systems outputs

Tuesday, November 21, marked a milestone in global efforts towards sustainable management and conservation of aquatic biodiversity as it was a World Fisheries Day.

To mark the day, fisher folks, scientists and managers of the industry are undertaking various activities to reflect on the importance, opportunities and future prospects in the face of challenges threatening the fisheries industry.

In Malawi, the day was preceded by a Fisheries and Aquaculture Forum held in Mangochi where local and international scientists, the academia, policy holders, organisations and representatives of user communities were sharing best practices, new research innovations and brainstorming on sustainable management of fisheries resources and development of aquaculture for the success of the National Fisheries and Aquaculture Policy currently under implementation.


Importance of fisheries to global and respective national social-economic development cannot be underestimated despite reeling through turbulences that threaten its common good. Findings by United Nations confirm that more than two-thirds of world’s fisheries are overfished and more than a third are in dire straits of declining. This is attributed to anthropogenic influences, climate change and environmental degradation, a scenario which calls for diligent efforts in tackling them.

Fisheries has greater good to economies and Malawi is currently implementing National Fisheries and Aquaculture Policy with broader goals of promoting sustainable utilisation of fisheries resource and promotion of aquaculture development for food and nutrition security and economic growth.

A glimpse into the National Fisheries and Aquaculture Policy


National Aquaculture and Fisheries Policy sets out ambitious targets of sustainably boosting capture and aquaculture production for increased nutritional and economic growth. It also aims at enhancing local capacities to sustainably manage and develop the sector.

About 20 percent of the country is covered by water resources and nearly most of the land is ideal for aquaculture production coupled by favourable climate for enviable investment in the fisheries sector. A recent Economic Outlook Report for Malawi reveals that over 1.6 million people are substantially dependent on the fishery for their livelihoods.

Through successful implementation of the policy, Malawi targets an increasing overall fish production to 120,000 tons per annum by 2020. Attainment of this would trigger an increase in per capita fish consumption from 8.5 to 10 kilogrammes (kg) though falling short of World Health Organisation’s recommended 13-15 kg per individual.

Targeted increase in annual fish production would quadruple Malawi’s fish exports from current 500 to 3,000 tons per annum and efforts should be intensified towards the country compliance with HACCP, GMP and other fish food safety protocols.With capture fishery production predictably to be relatively static, aquaculture is seen as an option. If large-scale commercial aquaculture investments are to add over 50,000 tons of fish, coupled with significant reduction in post-harvest losses and harnessed value addition, the country would suffice domestic demand for fish with a surplus of 20,000 tons.

Sustainable management of aquatic environment and its catchment areas vis a vis climate change mitigation, promotion of offshore livelihood activities to offset fishing pressure and limiting human population growth remain important attributes to consider in realising the policy in its broader sense.

Challenges compounding the sector

How to feed more than nine billion people by 2050 remains one of the world’s greatest challenges in the context of climate change, economic uncertainty and growing competition for natural resources. Malawi is no exception; evident by growing population amid limited natural resource base.

While aquaculture is a beacon of hope to sustain fish supply, availability and accessibility to quality water supply, competition from other alternative productions such as oil drilling and tourism, availability of high performing fish fingerlings, quality feeds, insufficient capital, climate change, extreme weather events and challenges in governance and regulatory frameworks are some of the pertinent bottlenecks likely constraining the growth of the sub-sector.

Local strains of Oreochromis species currently in use in Malawi are often blamed to be genetically challenged by stunted growth for farmers to break even. Desire for exotic breeds is thwarted by the conventions on biological diversity that limits its introduction on the premise of protecting indigenous natural biodiversity. In the local context, this highlights need for paradigm shift for impactful research innovations on quality feeds and fingerlings, genetic improvements and expanded commercial investments if aquaculture is to remain a game changer to the sector.

Capture fisheries production is projected to remain rather stable or on gradual decline due to variations and uncertainties in natural fish productivity and ecosystem imbalances. This is manifested by changes in catch quantity, composition and distribution. Already catches of large and economically important species in Malawi remain low due to disruption of aquatic environments and unsustainable fishing practices, a situation observably being compensated by a surge in small and less valuable species with usipa (Engraulicyprissardella) accounting for 70 percent of total annual fish production.

Nonetheless, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and overcapacity of fishing fleets, especially trawlers plying in undesignated but high production fishing zones, threaten sustainable exploitation of fisheries within the framework of MSY. Undue political interference, limited financial and logistical support to contain the problem are relatively seen as the underlying cause to the problem.

The road ahead

Steps towards sustainable management of aquatic resources and fish production with respect to growth and development of aquaculture and capture fisheries are unlikely to be an easy and linear process, until concerted efforts driven by strong political will and sprit of environmentalism are brought into play. Prospects for Malawi seem on course as the Economic Outlook Report (2017) reported an 8.98 percent increase in overall fish production translating to 157,268 tons.

Integrated ecosystem-based approach in fisheries management and meaningful deep water fishery and commercial aquaculture investments are crucial in sustaining fish production outputs. As population grows, people’s income improves and adoption of dietary diversification will accelerate demand and increased appetite for fish on the premise that it is cheap, health and readily available source of animal protein. In balancing demand against supply, aquatic ecosystem governance in dealing with increasing use of water spaces and resource utilisation should be strengthened with a business-unusual approach.

Whatever fisheries management system is selected, limiting fishing access is critical. Open access and uncontrolled fishing are retrogressive characters for capture fisheries and this requires adding a layer of governance to deal with coordination across all sectors to ensure that goals of environmental protection, ecosystem and biodiversity conservation are sustainably met while addressing the social-economic development goal.

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