In the third of a series of articles from Africa, Leyla Alyanak visits Malawi's Lake Malombe and finds fishing communities taking drastic steps to revive fish stocks
Fisherpeople launch patrol of their own slack waters
A mound of yellow, white and slimey-green twine lies heaped in the corner of a fisherman's hut. Like the idle clock hanging on the wall, the net's useful days are apparently over.
For fishermen on the Upper Shire River, the tiny arm of water which connects the sea-like Lake Malawi to its small neighbour, Lake Malombe, times are hard.
"I used to cast my net three times a day and each haul would be full of fish," says Francis Simbili. "My six children could eat, we had good provisions and money to mend our nets and our boats. But then the fish started disappearing. There was less money, and I could barely afford to repair my net."
In the good days, the Upper Shire's main catch was chambo, popular with chips washed down by lager in the country's eating houses. But the river's catch collapsed from 570 tonnes in 1983 to 96 in 1991. Now fishing is no longer profitable here and the number of nets have halved.
Further south, along the shores of Malawi's Lake Malombe it's a similar story. Chambo stocks have plummeted and catches of small fish, kumbuzi, which now form the bulk of the catch, have stagnated. Various fisheries remain profitable, but the value of the total catch on the lake fell nearly 70 percent from 1983 to 1991.
That has hit the pockets of the tens of thousands of people in the area who still depend fishing in one way or another. "Twenty years ago, we were catching very big chambos," said Janet Jumesi. "But now they are smaller and fewer. We were catching enough to provide for the family, and we were selling the rest. Now we cannot even feed the family."
Over-exploitation is behind the falling fish stocks on both the river and lake, that are exclusively fished by artisan fishers. "The number of fishermen went up," said Friday Njaya, a fisheries department officer at Lake Malombe. "Fisheries are an open resource and there were no limits on the number of those with access to the lake."
He adds: "When fish were plentiful, three-inch nets were the norm. But when fishermen noticed the lower catch, they started using smaller nets. "Sizes went down to a half-inch, and in some cases even a quarter-inch. So they were sweeping everything from the lake, before action was taken."
According to an FAO study, it is not clear whether on the Upper Shire the collapse of the migratory chambo stocks were due to overfishing in Lake Malombe or the rise in kambuzi seine fishing. Seine netting has greatly reduced aquatic vegetation, destroying nursery areas and reducing the trapping of nutritious sediment.
Over-fishing spurred the fisheries department to bring in rules designed to conserve stocks. Attempts have been made to control mesh sizes and night fishing. Fishing on the Upper Shire has been suspended, while fishermen can only take to Lake Malombe for three months of the year. But partly because of a lack of funds the regulations have been widely flouted.
An FAO and United Nations Development Programme project is now helping the fisheries department and the fishing communities conserve stocks. Central to the project is the setting up of beach village committees. These set rules for fishing and the community polices them by working alongside the authorities.
"We are vigilant of newcomers," said Lloyd Chitafumbwa, chairman of the Nasupulu committee. "If they don't have the regulation size nets -- we are now enforcing the use of three-quarter inch nets and plan to move up to one inch -- we report them to the fisheries department and they are not allowed to fish here, once most committees agree."
Since those starting up in fishing are obliged by local custom to report first to the headman, it makes it a little easier to keep track of them. "There was one fisherman last year using a tiny mesh," recalled Michael Sambakunfi, the committee's secretary. "When members saw it was actually a mosquito net, they grabbed it and burned it."
"Illegal fishing takes place occasionally," says FAO's Heimo Mikkola, "but the villagers are patrolling each other better than the fisheries department." He estimates that 90 to 95 percent of the fisherpeople under the scheme are now observing the regulations.
As well as involving communities in the management and harvesting of their fish resources, the project helps them find other ways to boost their incomes. And this is vital given the current restrictions on fishing.
Many families already combine fishing with part- or full-time agriculture, growing mainly maize and groundnuts. Some of the owners who supply boats and equipment, reaping 50 percent and upwards of the value of the catch, have substantial farms.
But the poorer people who crew the boats and split the remaining share of the catch earn less than US$ 10 a month. Sufficient land to make a living is beyond their reach. During the 1992-1995 drought, which also affected fish stocks on the shallow Lake Malombe, many were forced to fence off gardens on the bed of the receeding lake to grow some dry-season vegetables and maize.
Jobs are difficult to find outside the fishing industry, which is still central to the local economy. The only alternative work in and around the small district town of Mangoche is to be found in shops and bottle stores, government offices, religious centres and hospitals.
However FAO studies show that tourism around the shores of Lake Malawi offers some money-making opportunities. Possibilities also exist for encouraging local people, particularly women, to boost incomes through fish trading, and selling vegetables.
The problem, as in other poor communities, is that most families lack the collateral needed to secure working capital to invest in something more profitable than the likes of competing with their neighbours selling roadside doughnuts.
The German aid agency GTZ, a major FAO/UNDP project partner and funder, is providing small loans for families in the area. One scheme targets women who have access to fish for processing. And funds are quickly regenerated as women waiting for loans supervise the repayments of others. Repayment is 100 percent.
The World Bank signed a US$ 300 000 fisheries loan with the government in 1991, partly to provide credit for income generating schemes in fishing communities. The authorities encouraged women to set up groups. In some cases women have put their hard-earned savings together and opened bank accounts, but they are still waiting for the promised loans.
One of the dangers lurking is that people will take to their boats and nets and fish illegally if they cannot secure extra money to make up for their losses. And the pressure is likely to increase. Despite signs that stocks may be holding their own in places, fishing restrictions are likely to continue for some time. Indeed, specialists say that the number of boats on the lake will have to be reduced to achieve a sustainable fishery.
"I'm keeping my net," says Francis Simbili. "If I run out of food, I could be forced to violate the regulations. I'm the chairman of the Ngoyi-Chipeta committee so I have to set a good example. If I were to violate the rules, that would mean anyone could then go in and fish."
But Simbili and other members of the 29 committees are confident it won't come to this. Indeed, they have already tabled a proposal to close Lake Malombe to all fishing for two years to give it time to recover. "We are prepared to make a big sacrifice. We are just not prepared to let our families starve," he says.
But whether such a move would be sanctioned by other members of the communities is open to debate. For many such a ban would be an act of self-destruction. But whatever the outcome, people of the Upper Shire and Lake Malombe will have to negotiate some vicious eddies ahead.
Archive of News & Highlights
10 January 1997