Africa, Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines

ENVIRONMENT: Malawi Launches Ten-Year Plan to Save Rare Fish Species

Brian Ligomeka

BLANTYRE, Malawi, Oct 9 2003 (IPS) - Alarmed by the dwindling numbers of its rare species of fish, locally known as chambo, the Malawi government has formulated a 10-year plan to restore the fish in Lake Malawi, and its largest outlet, Shire River.

Lake Malawi is Africa’s third largest fresh water, located in central Africa.

Uladi Mussa, the minister of natural resources and environmental affairs, told IPS that the plan aims at restoring depleted fish stocks to maximum sustainable yields.

The Malawi Fisheries Department says their goal is to meet the country’s international obligations to restore chambo to its 1980 level by 2010. Chambo, which is a delicacy in Malawi, is a species of the tilapia family.

Mussa attributes the depletion of the fish in Lake Malawi and Shire River to over-fishing caused by an ever-increasing number of fishermen.

Mussa, who represents the lakeshore and fishing district of Salima in parliament, says: “The fishery is riddled with the use of illegal gear, such as small meshed nets, that catch small and not fully grown-up fish”.

“The destruction of aquatic vegetation beds and breeding grounds, which exposes young chambo to predation and to fishermen’s nets, is another concern,” he says.

Mussa says the species 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, regrets the minister.

Despite these problems, the fishing industry in Malawi plays 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 percent of lakeshore communities survive through fishing, fish processing, marketing, boat and gear sales and repair, and allied industries.

The 2002 Malawi State of the Environmental Report (SOER), presented to parliament recently, says fish plays a key role in food security. Malawi’s fishing industry, it says, used to contribute as much as 70 percent of protein in rural and urban areas. Overall, the industry contributes 4 percent to the country’s gross national product (gnp).

Fish consumption, the report says, averaged 14 kgs per person per year in the mid-1970s, but today it is less than six kgs per person each year due to an increase in human population and the decreasing numbers of fish in Lake Malawi.

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 resources due to environmental degradation was estimated at 4 million U.S. dollars in 1994. As a result of scarcity in the market, the wholesale price of chambo has risen 60-fold in the past 14 years.

Mussa says the initiative to revive the stock involves the commitment made by Malawi at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) held in Johannesburg, South Africa last year

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 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 themselves 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.

In mid-May, at a consultative workshop in the lakeshore district of Mangochi, the fisheries department invited specialists from Malaysia, Canada and SADC region to brainstorm and produce ideas to help the government achieve its goals.

Malawi’s dwindling fish populations are not just national problem but also global. The endangered species in Lake Malawi include the cichlids species, one of the biological wonders of the world. 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 biologists say the lake contains more freshwater species than most lakes in Europe and North America.

To reverse the dwindling fortunes of chambo, the government has launched a campaign, called ‘Nation, Save the Chambo’, to save the species. The campaign also aims to attract foreign and domestic funding to restore stocks to the pre-1990 levels.

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