Wed, Jul 17, 2019 - Page 6 News List

FEATURE: Overfishing and climate change sap Lake Malawi


Fishers in Senga, Malawi, fix nets as their boats sit idle on the shore of Lake Malawi on May 19.

Photo: AFP

On the shores of Lake Malawi, a crowd eagerly awaits the arrival of a white and yellow cedarwood boat carrying its haul.

The crew of six deliver a single net of chambo, sardine and tiny usipa fish from the boat, just one of 72 vessels that land their catch every day on the beach at Senga Bay.

However, overfishing and climate change have taken their toll.

Hundreds of local traders gather each morning and afternoon at Senga only to find that fish populations are falling in Lake Malawi, Africa’s third-largest body of freshwater.

“We were hoping to catch a half-boat or maybe a quarter-boat ... but I’m afraid the fish are dwindling in numbers,” port manager Alfred Banda said, as he stared wearily at the small catch as it was dragged onto the sand.

“Before, we used to catch a full boat but now we are struggling,” he said, adding that a full boat would earn a team of between six and 12 fishers about US$300.

Bordering three countries — Malawi, Tanzania and Mozambique — Lake Malawi stretches across more than 29,000 square kilometers with more than 1,000 species of fish.

The 14,000 people living at Senga Bay depend on the lake for food and for their livelihood.

“Seven years ago, there were lots more fish than today. In 2019, it is different. There are no fish in the water,” trader Katrina Male, a 40-year-old mother of six, told reporters as she stalked the nets of newly brought in fish, seeking the best deal.

“The fish nowadays are more expensive, because they are becoming scarce,” Male said. “Some children have stopped going to school because their parents can’t find the money.”

For both locals and climate experts, declining fish numbers reflect a combination of environmental change and overfishing that augurs ill for the future.

The World Bank ranks Malawi among the top 10 at-risk countries in Africa to climate change, with cyclones and floods among the major threats.

Increasing gale force winds and torrential rains have made it more difficult for fishers on the lake, Senga community leader John White Said told reporters.

“Our men can’t catch fish because of wind that is much stronger than before,” he said, adding that the rains are increasingly unpredictable on the lake.

“The rain before would not destroy houses and nature, but now it comes with full power, destroying everything and that affects the water as well,” he added.

According to the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the number of rainfall incidents in the aid-dependant country is likely to decrease — but each rainfall would be more intense, leading to droughts and floods.

The threat was highlighted in March when Malawi was hit by torrential rains from Cyclone Idai, killing 59 people. The storm also cut a swathe through Mozambique and Zimbabwe, leaving nearly 1,000 dead.

On top of the environmental effects, the number of fishers in Senga had doubled over the past 10 years due to the lack of other jobs, Said said. “There is no alternative to fishing.”

One of the few to benefit is 38-year-old boat owner Salim Jackson, who rents out his two vessels.

“I got into fishing 13 years ago because I had no other option — I never went to school — but it has brought me good money,” he said.

By sunset, the balls of fishing net lay stretched out on the beach and buyers and fishers negotiate prices.

Traders take their purchases in buckets to makeshift reed tables to be dried, smoked, fried or boiled in preparation for the market.

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