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Government in 10-year-plan to save rare fish

Alarmed by the dwindling numbers of its highly prized and rare species of fish locally known as Chambo , the Malawi government through the Fisheries Department has formulated a 10-year strategic plan to restore the chambo fish in the waters of Lake Malawi and its largest outlet Shire River.
Charles Banda

The strategic plan aims at restoring depleted fish stocks to maximum sustainable yields.

According to the Fisheries Department, the goal of this initiative is to meet the country's international obligations to restore the chambo fishery to its 1980 status by 2010. Chambo is a species of the tilapia family.

Several factors have been responsible for the depletion of the chambo fishery in Malawi waters. Malawi Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs Minister Uladi Mussa attributes the depletion of fish in Lake Malawi and Shire River to overfishing caused by an ever increasing number of fishers.

Mussa, also a parliamentarian from the lakeshore and fishing district of Salima in central Malawi explains: The fishery is riddled with the use of illegal gear, such as small meshed beach seine nets, that catch small and not fully grown-up fish. He further says that the destruction of aquatic vegetation beds and breeding grounds, which exposes not fully grown chambo to predation and to fishermens' nets, is another concern.

The chambo have suffered from violation of their closed breeding season. Fishermen have been illegally catching fish during the breeding season, resulting in loss of eggs and young fish, decried the minister.

Despite these problems, the fishing industry in Malawi has traditionally played an important role as a source of food, income and employment. Over 300,000 people are employed in the fishing industry. Statistics from Malawi Fisheries Department indicate that 14 per cent of lakeshore communities survive through fishing, fish processing, marketing, boat and gear sales and repair, and allied industries.

The Malawi State of the Environmental Report (SOER), presented to the Parliament of Malawi recently explicitly expounds the fact that fish in Malawi plays a key role in food security. The Report points out that at one time in the recent past the fishing industry was contributing as much as 70 per cent of animal protein in rural and urban areas. The same report says that overall, the fishing industry contributes 4 per cent to Gross National Product (GNP).

The SOER 2002 report says that fish consumption averaged 14 kilos per person per year in the mid-1970s, but today it is less than six kilos per person each year due to an increase in human population and the decreasing numbers of fish in Lake Malawi, which is Africa s third largest.

Average fish landings have declined from about 65,000 metric tonnes per year in the 1970s and 1980s to 50,000 metric tonnes per year in the late 1990s. The loss to fishery resource due to environmental degradation in the National Environmental Action Plan (NEAP) of 1994 was estimated at US$4 million. As a result of scarcity in the market, the wholesale price of chambo has risen 60-fold in the past 14 years.

According to Mussa, the restoration of the chambo fish as part of the Malawi national strategy will be supported by policy initiatives expressed as national, regional and global goals. The global goal involves the commitment made by Malawi at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development [WSSD] held in Johannesburg, South Africa

The Fisheries Department intends by 2004 to prevent, deter and eliminate illegal fishing. By 2010 the department will apply the ecosystem approach to sustainable development of fisheries. It is hoped that by 2015 all depleted fish stocks will be restored to maximum sustainable yields, says Mussa.

The three countries bordering Lake Malawi - Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania - are signatories to the Southern African Development Community (SADC) protocol on fisheries. Under this agreement, parties to the protocol commit to maintain a proper balance between resource development for a higher standard of living for their people, conservation and enhancement of the environment to promote sustainable development.

At the national level, the 10 year strategic plan is supported by Malawi Vision 2020, the fisheries policy, the Fisheries Act, the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action plan, the National Environmental Action Plan, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment Affairs, and the Department of Fisheries Strategic Plan 2002-2006, including the National Strategy for Sustainable Development. All have the same underlying goal - poverty reduction through sustainable development and economic growth.

In mid-May at a consultative workshop in the lakeshore district of Mangochi at Boadzulu Holiday Resort, the fisheries department invited fish specialists from Malaysia and Canada and others from the SADC region to brainstorm on the plan and produces ideas to help the government achieve the plan's intended results.

Malawi's director of fisheries, Sloans Chimatiro recently told the media that, "the 10 year strategic plan involves government, nongovernmental organizations, donor agencies, university scholars and all stakeholders in order to harness their ideas together."

"The plan has been hatched after years of investigative research and the department shall employ adaptive management, recommending what should be implemented in order to successfully achieve the desired results," Chimatiro said.

Malawi's dwindling fish populations are not just a village problem. They are a national and global one as well. Lake Malawi fish, the cichlids species, are one of the biological wonders of the Earth. There are estimated to be some 750 to 1,000 species of cichlids in Lake Malawi. They are the only freshwater species endemic to the lake, meaning they are found nowhere else on the planet.

Tropical fish biologists agree that the lake contains more freshwater species than are found in all the lakes of Europe and North America combined. When asked if the cichlids have been affected as is the case with chambo, Chimatiro said, "Yes, there is that possibility that cichlids species might be affected, however there is need to conduct research and determine to what extent they have been affected."

Chimatiro said that communities that in the past have been dependent on fishing for their livelihoods now need to be sensitized to realize that fishes should be allowed to grow, breed and reproduce. "Communities have to accept that fishing these days is not the same problem. However, the resource has to be utilized sustainability if it is to be maintained as 10 to 15 years ago. We understand the local people needs - it is a social-economic," Chimatiro said.

To reverse the dwindling catches of chambo, a campaign has just been launched with full support of the Cabinet Committee for Natural Resources and Environment. The campaign, "Nation, Save the Chambo," aims to mobilize all Malawians towards a programme of sustainable use of chambo. The campaign also aims to attract more foreign and domestic funding to restore stocks to the pre-1990 levels.

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