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: Fishing in Troubled Waters

, Oct 24 2009 (IPS) - In two decades of fishing on the Zambezi, Darius Wamulume has never seen anything like this. With deep ulcerations and tissue decay, the fish he has caught recently is too unsightly to sell and too suspect to eat.

Fishing in the Lukanga Swamp - a deadly fungus is destroying fish stocks along the length of the Zambezi.  Credit:  D Brian Wilson/Wikicommons

Fishing in the Lukanga Swamp - a deadly fungus is destroying fish stocks along the length of the Zambezi. Credit: D Brian Wilson/Wikicommons

“The first time I saw this fish I was afraid even to touch it, I had never seen a fish rot while it was still alive in the water. I was scared of its appearance and prayed that it was just a one off.”

It wasn’t.

Wamalume is not the only fisherman to have caught contaminated fish. Over 700,000 people depend on the Zambezi for sustenance. Fishing communities along the river have seen a depletion of fish stocks over the years due to improper fishing methods, but the appearance of the killer fungal disease epizootic ulcerative syndrome (EUS) is a fresh threat to life along the 2,700 kilometre-long river.

Wamalume, father of ten, earned up to 20 U.S. dollars on a good day, before EUS appeared in Zambia in 2008. In a country where over 70 percent of the population lives on less than a dollar a day, he was wealthy.

The situation changed this year. With fish stocks already diminishing, the contamination saw him fail to earn enough to send four of his children to secondary school. He sent his three youngest children to his relatives to be looked after. For the first time in his life, his family “knew hunger”.

“Firstly, I have noticed that I have to go further afield and deeper in the water to catch any fish. The fish are also getting smaller, I understand that over-fishing and climate change is the cause, but this (disease) is a curse”.

Epizootic ulcerative syndrome

EUS is thought to be as a result of warmer waters caused by climate changes. It was first seen in Namibia in 2006, and has since crept into the Zambezi river basin, killing fish and threatening to decimate as many as 20 varieties including tilapia, a staple food in Zambia. The disease also poses a threat in another seven SADC countries in the basin, Angola, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Malawi and Mozambique.

Zambia, where two thirds of the Zambezi River Basin lies, is most affected by EUS. The Food and Agriculture (FAO) has warned that millions of people inhabiting the Zambezi River Valley are at risk of food insecurity because fish is not only a source of revenue in many rural districts, it is also the cheapest available source of protein.

The fisheries sector contributes 3.8 percent to the national economy, and is the fourth largest employer in Zambia, after mining, agriculture and forestry.

According to a recent report on the fisheries sector published by the Jesuit Centre for Theological Research (JCTR), the demand for fish has long outstripped supply. Annual fish production from 2000 to 2007 ranged between 80,000 and 85,000 metric tonnes, far below the estimated national fish demand of 120,000 metric tonnes per annum.

The report states that the devastating impact of the EUS will drive the gap between supply and demand even wider, and urges quick intervention by government.

Limited response

But the prognosis is not good. Firstly, research is hamstrung by the small budgetary allocation given to the fishing industry. Officials in the department of fisheries say despite their repeated and urgent requests for funding, this has not been forthcoming.??Allocations to the department of fisheries were reduced from 1.9 million dollars in 2008, to $851,000 in 2009.

“The fishing industry, not withstanding its huge potential in overcoming poverty and hunger, is sadly ignored. There is never enough money to enforce policies and legislation to protect fish stocks, no money to mitigate the effects of climate change,” says Peter Mhango a recently retired fisheries officer in the Ministry of Agriculture, who now operates a fishing vessel on the Zambezi River in the North Western province of Zambia.

Livestock professor and permanent secretary in the ministry of fisheries, Isaac Phiri, has even grimmer news. He says controlling EUS in natural waters such as rivers is near impossible.

“We have tried to experiment with treatments but even if we find treatment, how can we treat this massive water body? If it were in fish farming operations, it would have been simpler to minimise or prevent its spread, because then you can confine the water bodies and improve the quality of water, but we are talking about the Zambezi basin here.”

He said EUS is seasonal, usually occurring during the rainy season, so fishermen should brace for another round of the outbreak. ??Scientists have been unable to establish precisely what causes the fungus in the waters. When the first outbreak occurred, it was thought that EUS formed in cold weather when fish were into deeper water, where there was less oxygen.

“But this is speculation, we are now thinking that it is a result of global warming, but we have yet to ascertain this. So if we cannot even identify the cause, how can we hope for treatment?”

When EUS surfaced in 2007, fish biologist Ben van der Waal, from the Integrated Management of the Zambezi/Chobe River System Fishery Resource Project, said that eradication of disease was impossible “now that it was in a natural setting”.

He warned that it would take many years to adapt to the disease and in the meantime, fish losses would be “colossal”, giving the example of Asia where it took about 20 years for the outbreak to subside to endemic levels.

Lessening the impact

Phiri explains that experts in the SADC region are trying to formulate fish disease monitoring programs and mitigate the impacts of the disease in line with SADC protocols on shared waters.

“We are working with our colleagues in Namibia and neighboring countries affected by EUS to find solutions or at least mitigate impact.”

Martha Ngumbo, a veterinary researcher, says there are other reasons for a failing fishing industry.

“EUS is just one (problem). We have more serious problems with over-fishing, bad practices, climate change and a failure to enforce existing legislation that governs fisheries. What we need to do is shift focus. Let’s wait out this disease, but in the meantime, find alternative ways of fishing.”

She explains that 15 million hectares of Zambia’s surface area is covered by lakes, rivers swamps and streams; the country accounts for more than 45 percent of SADC’s total water resources.

With such a massive natural resource, Ngumbo suggests raising investments in aquaculture, strengthening marketing infrastructure to meet local demand for fish and improving technical skills of artisanal fish farmers in aquaculture and pond construction: “Zambia has the potential of becoming a huge fish exporter. We need to harness this.”?”

Wamalume says fishermen like him should be given loans, grants or credit to enable them to establish fish ponds and survive during the fishing bans expected ahead.

“I can’t wait until a solution to this disease is found, I need to eat now, my children need education now.”

*This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS – Inter Press Service and IFEJ – International Federation of Environmental Journalists, for the Alliance of Communicators for Sustainable Development (

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