Controversial fishing bulbs have left fishers’ future grim. JAMES CHAVULA writes.
Back in 2002, nothing could go wrong for 26-year-old John Minikisi. As one of the many fishers on Likoma and Chizumulu islands, he recalls that the islands were rewarding fishing grounds such that boat-sinking catches were almost certain.
“When I ventured into commercial fishing, fishers only needed a kerosene lamp or two to get boatloads of usipa and other nocturnal fish,” says the veteran.
Lately, the catch has been on the wane. The nocturnal fishing trips that used to bring forth up to 45 bucketfuls now yield as little as two. He rues accepting this as a sign of dwindling fish population in Lake Malawi, saying it might as well be a result of the increasing number of fishers and changes in weather amid climate change.
With the Department of Fisheries estimating a loss of nearly 90 percent of fish stocks in Africa’s third-largest fresh-water lake, the fisher folk have to go deeper and use brighter bulbs to increase their catch.
When electricity goes off at 10pm, the numerous bulbs attached to first-line boats literally turn the waters of Likoma and Chizumulu into a floating city. In 2014, Minikisi was one of the earliest islanders to embrace the fishing lights imported from Tanzania. The technology has spread to other districts, with research estimating 73 in 100 fishers on Lake Malawi are using them. Minikisi feels this is the way to go as the scramble for fish gets tougher.
“The depletion of fish pushed us to adopt kerosene lamps. Now, the volume of our catch is not getting better. The number of fishers is increasing. When the bulbs came by, we had to comply,” said the fisher who employs eight locals.
It is no secret the bulbs are gaining ground. They are readily available.
However, they have come under fire for scaring away fish and worsening overfishing.
As a matter of fact, chiefs on Chizumulu have banned the use of the bulbs to safeguard their fishing grounds from depletion.
Figures show fishing is the source of livelihood for nearly 1.5 million Malawians and it contributes almost 60 percent to the country’s protein uptake.
Most people on Likoma and Chizumulu islands rely on fishing. Many find small-scale businesses not viable due to huge costs of shipping goods from the mainland where they get everything for survival.
“The lake is our field. If we don’t conserve fish, it will terribly worsen hunger and poverty on the island,” Chief Nkumpha III says.
The traditional authority, whose territory overlaps the two islands, reduces the centrality of fishing to a staccato of slogan.
“No fishing, no food. No food, no life. No life, no hope,” he says in a dying whisper.
The villagers might be aware of the disaster waiting to happen, but they need to act decisively to safeguard themselves from more devastating aftershocks in future.
Chief fisheries research officer Moffat Manase confirmed the widespread bulbs’ potential to repel some fish and subject others to overfishing, saying Likoma could be doomed for “a lose-lose situation” if the locals leave the conservation efforts to Chizumulu alone.
“Likoma and Chizumulu islands use the same fishing grounds and fish know no boundaries. The worst hit species will be depleted if one of the islands doesn’t seem to care. There is need for concerted efforts to prevent this situation,” says Manase.
Lighting is a time-honoured fishing strategy in the lake endowed with up to 1 000 fish species. It has evolved from the use of grass torches and electric torches to lamps and the bulbs powered by acid batteries.
However, the fisheries researcher singles out the bulbs, which sell at K500 each, as a good example of bad fishing gear.
“The bulbs expose usipa, ndunduma, utaka, mcheni and other fish that live up to 30m from the bottom of the lake to overfishing,” says Manase.
He explained: “While the bright lights that spread on the surface of the lake cause some discomfort in some fish, the rays that go deeper attract zooplanktons and the fish gang up to follow the underwater creatures for food, not knowing they are being led into the nets.”
Amid warnings against overfishing, the bucketfuls of mcheni in boatloads of usipa are shrinking. With the predator fish disappearing, the fishers are catching usipa all year round. Nowadays, Likoma dwellers utilise passenger ships’ stopover at Chizumulu to buy cheap and tasty fish.
It is against this background the fisheries specialist urges the district council to come up with by-laws to protect the fish population.
“Technology helps us work more, better and faster, but the use of bulbs is not sustainable. There is need for control measures, including by-laws. What path the council takes, you will need to engage the people all the way because fishing is a livelihood issue in Likoma,” he stated.
Coming up with by-laws and concerted efforts to combat wasteful fishing methods is a pressing need, Likoma district commissioner Charles Mwawembe says.
“Population is growing fast, fish is getting scarce and exorbitant. What will become of the islanders who depend on fishing if we don’t act accordingly now? Will our children and their children enjoy the same quality of life if we continue business as usual?” the DC asks.
Equally urgent is the need to intensify public awareness as the fishers seem convinced the bulbs help them compete favourably amid the scramble for fish. Siginala, those who run the boats with bulbs on lengthy trips to draw fish close to the shore, say the detested technology does not torture their eyes with pricking light spills as do kerosene lamps.
But the side-effects are many. Some kerosene lamps might have been replaced by solar lamps to reduce water pollution resulting from paraffin spills, but the bulb system is not cleaner. Reactions of acid with water emit ozone-depleting substances with graver environmental hazards, Manase warns.
“Save our lake. Save our fish,” Nkumpha says, recommending the banning of fishing bulbs as Ghana did with lamps in 2011.
He wants government to invest more resources in civic education and law enforcement on the lake.
But, determined and ambitious, the chief backs Chizumulu’s steps towards fashioning by-laws to regulate fishing gear as well as emerging methods.
He says: “Whether we are catching more or less, we need to worry about the future and take necessary steps to stop a worse tragedy for the fishing population.” n