This seems to be an unlikely time to go for fishing in the vast-blue and freshly waters of Lake Malawi. The very hot sand gives no room for those many barefooted Chisekele villagers to go near the shores of the lake in the afternoon hours during this summer season.
The shore is spookily deserted today save for a few people sleeping under the only two trees – the initiation ceremonies and some upland businesses. In the nearest communities, it looks like they are inhabited by women and children.
“Most of the times men stay along the roads and are involved in bicycle taxi business and later at the lake fishing,” said Abiti Patuma while washing her baby.
After she was satisfied that her child- a two year old Mustafa – she led me to a nearby spot, where we found some men sleeping on fishing nets while others gambling, a traditional boat made up of woods docked some ten meters in the lake.
“I started fishing when I was very young. There was no one who taught me the art, but I just learnt it after watching my family members doing it,” said Songo Akibu, married with five children.
Like all dwellers of Chisekere village in the area of Traditional Authority Mponda in Mango chi district, Songo fish for food and economic gains.
Fishing contributes about four percent towards Malawi’s GDP, with more than 300,000 people depending directly on it as a source of food and livelihood, according to a 2002 State of the Environmental Report to Malawi Parliament.
DECLINING IN FISH SPECIES
Malawi has a total land area of 118 500 km2 of which 20 percent is water. Approximately 10–25 percent of the total land area, or 11 650 km2, is suitable for aquaculture, according to Brooks, 1992.
Lake Malawi is known to the world with its enormous variety of the fishes. 500-1000 different species of fish are found, and most of these fish are found only in Lake Malawi. 90 percent of these fishes belong to the family called “Cichlid”, which includes Utaka, Mbuna, Mcheni and many other kinds. It is thought that all of these 500 different cichlids have developed from the same origin, for about 2,000,000 years.
The declining fish stocks has raised alarm that Lake Malawi, with an estimated 750 to 1,000 species declared as a World Heritage Site by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in 1984, could be affected. Some of the fish species are endemic to Lake Malawi.
Generally, the fisheries have experienced considerable decline in the 1990s after a relative stability in the preceding years. The catches have declined from an average of 60,000 metric tonnes in the period of 1976-1990 to 49,000 metric tonnes in 1991-2003, according to an Overview if fisheries and aquaculture in Malawi by the Fisheries Department.
The small-scale commercial fisheries, are mechanized, capital intensive and use mainly trawling and purse seining (‘ring net’) and are confined in the southern part of Lake Malawi.
The fishery consists of pair trawlers units (wooden boats about 8 m long with a 20-40 hp inboard engine), stern trawler (90-385 hp) units and ring nets (90 hp) which are confined to the southern part of the lake.
Thirty-seven commercial fishing vessels have been recommended for this fishery, but the number of fishing vessels have fluctuated between 10 to 25 in the last decade.
Thirteen trawlers, eight stern and five pair trawlers are currently operational. The pair trawlers fish in waters between 18 m and 50 m and the stern trawlers are restricted in deep waters greater than 50 m. All the stern trawlers except one are bottom trawlers. One stern trawler operate a midwater trawl.
The dwindling fish catches in Lake Malawi have been a cause of concern to fishermen “In the past, we used to catch fish just within a few meters in the lake but now we have to sail a long distance to get what we used to.
It is difficult to fish a lot as we used to get,” Said Song while sewing his net.
According to the Fisheries Department, said in a recent interview, uring the time fish catch reached its peak in the lake, the total catches amounted to 13,000 tonnes in 1988 per annum. However, as of now following the decline, fish stocks have gone down to as low as 4,000 tonnes per annum.
A few years ago, the Malawi government launched Lake Malawi Artisanal Fisheries Development Project aiming at improving household income in the five lakeshore districts of Likoma, Nkhatabay, Nkhotakota, Salima and Mangochi which will see people having improved stocks as well as catches.
The African Development Fund (ADF) injected 10.56 million dollars, of which 9.42 million dollars is a loan and 1.14 million dollars a grant, in the project.
Minister of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development professor Peter Mwaza said the project is going on well as it has already promoted village level fish farming schemes comprising of four hectares of water surface area benefiting about thirty smallholders per location through construction of fish ponds.
To complement this response from the government, Bunda College was in June 2006 designated as a node for SANBio on fisheries and aquatic sciences related research and development activities within the region.
Under this programme, there is a Community Action Research Programme (CARP) – fish project which aims to increase fish productivity among 60 farmers in the upland districts of Dowa and Mchinji from 750 kilograms to 1.500 producing around 21 000 kilograms through.
“This will enable farmers to have alternative sources of fish other than keeping on pressurizing the lakes and rivers which have, over the past time become deserts on their own,” said the project Coordinator Emmanuel Kaunda.
Kaunda said SANBio will also try to lobby for the government’s inclusion of fisheries among the top priorities in the development agendas.
“Fish farming has shown that it has had a beach value of about MK1.5 billion (approx. 21 million US$), and contributed about four percent to Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The fish industry supports nearly 1.6 million people in lakeshore communities and makes substantial contributions to their livelihoods, by supporting approximately nine percent, 18 percent, 15 percent, nine percent and 30 percent of the people in lakeshore districts, as well as six percent of the people in the Lower Shire Valley derive their livelihood from fishing.
“Within the agricultural and natural resources sector, fisheries is the second largest employer, second from the crop sector. It has the largest number of employees (4) per enterprise, compared to 3.8 under crops; it generates the largest profit per employee per hour (K50.15) (2002 figures) compared to mining (K16.64) and crops (K5.94).
“So if we put more emphasis on it, for sure, the economy of the country will grow,” he said.