Chambo—one of the 1 000 species in Lake Malawi—is exclusively found in Malawi. This is why Lake Malawi, in 1984, was declared a World Heritage Site.
Though preferred by millions because of its high nutritional status and salacious taste, chambo is under threat in Lake Malawi. Its stocks are dwindling—and in the past six years, it has gone down by almost 87 percent.
For instance, chambo capture in the southern part of Lake Malawi, Upper Shire and Lake Malombe declined from 15 000 tonnes to 3 000 tonnes per year at the end of the 1990s.
Recent data from the Fisheries Department reveals that chambo’s contribution to total capture fisheries has drastically fallen from 47 percent in 1982 to 2 percent in 2012.
“You just cannot find chambo easily these days. It is an endangered species in our lake,” says Sosten Juma, one of the fishers at Mlangeni fishing spot in Mangochi.
Yet it is not just chambo that is dwindling. A number of shallow-water fish species in the famous fresh water lake such as kambuzi, mbaba, mlamba, makumba and matemba are also under threat. All these species are within the reach of small-scale fishers.
The effects are already dreaded. For instance, owing to chambo’s scarcity in the market, the wholesale price of chambo, data shows, rose from K2.50 per kilogramme in the early 1990s to K130 per kilogramme in 2002.
Currently, an average sized chambo fish costs about K800.
The tragedy of declining fishery and the increase in prices is that fish are no longer a regular feature in the diet of most rural poor Malawians.
Acknowledging that animal protein is vital for healthy growth and development of the young, the loss in national protein intake—which fish provides almost 60 percent—threatens to have long-term adverse effects on the health and mental capacity of future generations.
Clinical trials conclusively show that children deprived of animal protein, especially fish, do not develop their full mental potential.
Sosten Juma and Yusuf Jussab, who have been fishers at Mlangeni in Mangochi for many years, agree that the number of fishers at Mlangeni has grown tremendously.
“When I began fishing here in the mid 1980s, all fishers here knew each other by name. That is not the case today. There is just so many of us here,” says Jussab.
In 2010, director of fisheries Alexander Bulirani told the media that the number of fishers in Lake Malawi has increased by 124 percent in the last decade.
No doubt this has increased pressure on the fish resources. Yet, this is not all. Steve Donda, deputy director of fisheries, says there are many factors behind the dwindling pattern.
“There are environmental factors: water pollution from upland, drying up of rivers, siltation, deforestation, destruction of breeding and nursery grounds,” he says.
He adds that other causes are fisheries related ones.
“They include destructive fishing practices (use of under meshed nets, poisons), high fishing effort, non observance of fisheries regulations and limited capacity for the Department of Fisheries to undertake monitoring, control and surveillance (MCS) activities due to inadequate resources (vessels and vehicles),” he says.
On paper, there is a great happening. In 2003, for instance, government launched a 10-year Fish Restoration Strategic Plan to restore the chambo population in the lake to what it was in 1980 by the year 2010.
That was not all. In 2004, government launched the Lake Malawi Artisanal Fisheries Project to increase fish stock in the lake and to improve the livelihood of fishing communities in the lakeshore districts.
The five-year project would involve providing communities with storage facilities to reduce the amount of fish that goes bad from the point of capture to the point of sale, costing fishers and fish mongers money they could not afford to lose.
The other component of the project involved giving fishers’ groups loans to enable them buy fishing units that would enable them fish in the deeper part of the lake where catch was better. The fishing units comprised boats, motor engines, nets and lamps. With this equipment, small-scale fishers would not have to fish in the shallow waters of the lake where fish breed and grow.
Government got a $10.5 million loan and a $9.42 million grant from the African Development Fund to finance the project, which was scheduled to end in December 2010.
However, Jussab says though he has been around for years, he has never been involved in such projects.
“Perhaps it is being implemented in other areas because Lake Malawi is huge. But I have not been involved in any of these projects,” he says.
Besides, the fact that shallow water species such as chambo continue to register drastic reduction, tells you that old ways of re-stocking Lake Malawi are wanting.
In an article titled ‘Policy and Institutional Framework Review of the Fisheries Sector in Malawi’, Blessings Chinsinga argues that policy and institutional framework has not been sufficiently effective in promoting sustainable fisheries management underlined by the continued decline in the stocks of fish.
“It appears this has been the case because the interventions that have been emphasised have not addressed the problem holistically. Most of the interventions have tended to emphasise technical measures based on the biology of the predominant fish species.
“Consequently, social and economic institutional aspects that structure the incentives in fisheries exploitation have largely been ignored,” he says.
But Donda says efforts in promoting sustainable utilisation of fisheries resources face a number of challenges in the country.
“There are challenges like resource limitation, limited income generating activities on the part of fishing communities and high population growth rate, hence increasing fish demand.
“Diversification of fish production through fish farming (cages and ponds) is one way of reducing pressure on the natural or wild fish stocks,” he says.