Since 1951, Mbenje Fishing Island in Salima on the southern shoreline of Lake Malawi has gained special recognition for its unique, sustainable traditional fish management strategies.
The collective efforts to conserve fish contrast sharply with the situation in other parts of Malawi’s largest lake where overfishing and use of illegal equipment has left catches falling.
Inspired by intricate traditional beliefs the islanders hold dearly, strict enforcement of community by-laws and legally acceptable fishing gear, the ‘sacred island’ in Traditional Authority (T/A) Makanjira offers lessons on everything not to do as catches slump.
However, T/A Makanjira VIII, enthroned in 1989, is convinced that preservation of traditional beliefs has been pivotal in promoting sustainable fishing practices.
He says: “Traditional customs are still highly valued on the Island. This is the place where early chiefs are buried. The graves are well looked after in honour of the departed souls believed to be the givers of the abundant fish species in the lake,’’ he explains.
Lake Malawi, Africa’s third-largest freshwater lake, is home to over 700 fish species, but catches keep falling as the number of fishers rises.
Mbenje Island attracts at least 500 fishers from as far as Likoma and Chizumulu islands every year.
From December to March, it observes its four-month curfew on fishing to allow fish to multiply.
The breeding time, alternatively known as the closed season, is twice government’s ban on fishing which runs from November to December on the lake.
During the season, Makanjira said, no fishing activity is allowed on and near the island.
“No one is allowed to visit the island and offenders run the risk of facing the wrath of supernatural forces that reign over the island,” he said. “From December to March every year, all fishers evacuate the island for fear of misfortunes such as drowning, high seas, lightning, disease outbreaks and ghost attacks.”
Interestingly, the ban gives fishers ample time to rest, fix their equipment and venture into other income-generating activities, including farming, while giving fish to multiply.
“This has turned Mbenje into a goldmine for many fishing communities,” says the traditional leader.
Salima district fisheries officer Chris Nyasa hailed the local leader for harnessing traditional beliefs to conserve fish.
“Due to collective efforts spearheaded by the chief, Domera Bay, where Mbenje Island is located, has been recording the highest fish catches in recent years compared to the neighbouring Chipoka and Senga Bay,” he says.
According to Nyasa, fishers at Domera Bay have caught nearly 2 500 tonnes of fish between January and June while Chipoka’s catch was just about 1 000 tonnes.
“Salima fisheries is not complete without the story of Mbenje Island, which has passionately demonstrated a sense of unity and ownership missing in most communities we work with. Mbenje is an extraordinary example of traditional fisheries management in Malawi that has stood the test of time,” he explains.
Nyasa says participatory fisheries management or co-management is the most widely adopted approach, but it is fraught with challenges ranging from weak enforcement of acceptable regulations to rampant use of fine-meshed nets, overfishing and environmental degradation.
Traditionally, Mbenje is an island where women do not go.
Legend has it that defiant women provoke the wrath of the spirits believed to hover over the island and they bring bad luck to the fishers.
Besides, the island has strict laws against destruction of the environment. For instance, it is illegal to kill snakes and birds. Harvesting of trees and the rest of green cover is also prohibited. The island’s lush forests and rock outcrops are home to human-friendly snakes, which are mostly non-poisonous.
Smoking hemp, gulping alcoholic drinks, transactional sex, squabbling, gambling and other life-threatening activities are all banned to maintain law and order. Additionally, violations of contravention laws are punished by heavy sanctions.
For seven decades, communities surrounding Mbenje have nourished the “spirits of the island” with annual sacrifice ceremonies marking the lifting of curfews on fishing.
The opening of the island is attended by chiefs as well as officials from Salima District Council and Department of Fisheries.
Group village head Mpiringidzo, who leads the entourage to the venue of the spiritual sacrifice, says the ceremony is currently modified to create the room for the youth. The chief, who hosts both the closing and opening ceremonies, says the youth need to understand the value of cultural heritage in managing natural resources.
He narrates: “We involve young people in patrolling fishing grounds and other beach village conservation committees’ activities because the lake belongs to them and their children.
“We want them to embrace conservation methods that have sustained abundant fish catches while fishers in the country are whining about dwindling fish stocks.”