Fish in Malawi is an important natural resource supporting livelihoods of over 1.2 million across its value chain.
However, the fisheries sector is experiencing a downturn—with some species vanishing and catches of chambo and other commercially important species falling.
According to the recent National Economic Report, the country’s catch last year reached nearly 199 500 tonnes.
Yet, this is inadequate for the country’s growing population, which has surged from 13 million to 17.6 million in a decade.
“The catches mostly includes usipa and utaka, which have overtaken chambo, kampango and other species due to changes in aquatic climate and ecosystem degradation which is altering food chains and breeding patterns” says Maxon Ngochera, head of the Fisheries Research Unit in Monkey Bay along the southern shoreline of Lake Malawi.
The researcher says rampant use of illegal gear, increased nutrient pollutants and environmental degradation have severely damaged shallow parts of the freshwater lake—leaving no desirable breeding space for chambo.
He explains: “There is a huge nutrient load from chemical fertilisers and continued fishing in shallow areas that has cleared all the vegetation which provides sanctuary for fish to breed.
“Use of under-meshed gears and weak law enforcement continues to predispose our chambo to premature capture before it contributes to stock build-up, hence the scarcity.”
The country’s fisheries laws requires fishers to return into waters any chambo measuring less than 15 centimetres, imposing the minimum mesh size of 3.5 inches on all seine nets plunging into the country’s largest lake.
Ngochera calls for intensified monitoring, surveillance and control mechanisms to perk up chambo stocks in the freshwater lake.
The measures include closed season and law enforcement.
But research by the Department of Fisheries shows that over 33 000 tonnes of ndunduma fish in Lake Malawi remain unexploited as many small-scale fishers cannot afford appropriate deep-water fishing technologies.
Due to open access to the country’s fishing zones, limiting fishing efforts remains a challenge.
“Controlling numbers of fishermen entering the lake and fishing effort is necessary considering that we are too many competing each other and chasing for the few remaining fishes,” says Phillip Manduwi, a commercial fisher in Mangochi.
Manduwi is the secretary of Commercial Fishers Association of Malawi. He shudders to think about the day the lake may run out of fish, but refuses to bury his head in sand and pretend all is well in the sector that sustains thousands of fishers like him.
He bemoans: “That day may come soon if no legal measures are taken to flush out illegal gear and reduce number of fishers.
Concerned fishers are increasingly challenging Department of Fisheries to regulate entry into fishery and assist fishers to diversify their means of livelihood.
They fear possible collapse of the fishing industry may disrupt livelihoods if not checked.
“For unclear reasons authorities are failing to get rid of illegal fishers who are causing a huge damage to the lake’s ecosystem as they are getting anything with their illegal nets. Fishing is the only job I have known in my life”, says Joilosi Kapuchi Banda, 58, from Kafuzila in Dwangwa, Nkhotakota.
The open-access policy makes it difficult to regulate fishing and track fish production trends in Malawi amid funding and decentralisation bottlenecks.
“Clear tenure rights to fishing are fundamental towards improved fisheries governance, but care has to be taken to ensure that limiting access does not worsen food insecurity, aggravate rural poverty or undermine customary and traditional rights of resource users,” observes Dr Friday Njaya, Director of Fisheries.
According to Njaya, the department has introduced vessel monitoring gadgets to detect and stop illegal fishing in non-designated parts of Lake Malawi.
The department promotes rights-based and ecosystem approach to fisheries management in partnership with beach village committees.
The department is also working with non-State actors to strengthen local institutions and assist communities that depend on waning fish stocks to diversify their livelihoods through fish farming and village saving schemes.
The actors hope this will ease pressure on fishery as the National Fisheries and Aquaculture Policy envisages increasing fish catches from 90 000 to 110 000 tonnes a year by 2021.n