The scramble for fish in Lake Malawi has reached a fever pitch with traders taking into the water to buy the catch from fishers and prices are skyrocketing as it exchanges hands several times before the boats arrive on shore, JAMES CHAVULA writes.
For Nkhata Bay-based fisher Mbuluwa Njoka, the best memories of his 23-year-old career came at the start, when canoes were sagging under the weight of utaka catches.
“Those were the days; there was always enough fish to share with friends and relatives waiting on the shore. When we arrived on the sands along Lake Malawi, there were just not enough people to buy our catches. Then, we had to distribute the surplus to members of our extended families or suffer the pain of seeing it perish,” he recalls with noticeable nostalgia.
That was in 1995 and Njoka was only 14 when his fishing family initiated him into the day-and-night business that helped them acquire two boats, two nets and decent houses.
Over the years, the catches have been waning and the scramble for fish increasing. He likes the rush for fish to a fierce relay race in which vendors’ desperately jostle for catches has reduced lakeshore communities to uncertain spectators with little or no fish in their diet.
The locals along the shoreline of Lake Malawi, the country’s largest fishing heartland, are hopelessly battling for access to fish which they once got for free and vendors will not allow them to have it on cheap.
The father-of-two put the silent inequalities in context: “Fish catches have been falling for many years. The only thing that is growing is the number of fishers in the lake and vendors scrambling for fish with the poor locals.
“For the past five years, vendors have actually been hiring boats and following us right in the lake to increase chances of laying their hands on scarce fish. They buy the catch right in the middle of the lake where we fish. By the time it gets to the shores, the fish would have changed hands three or four times and prices double and triple in the process.”
During the interview, Njoka and his five-strong crew were in the lake, sailing ashore from “yet another futile fishing spree”.
“Good catches have been few and far apart these days,” he says. “As traders and middlemen follow us in the lake, a half-full boat of utaka is good business. What we sell at K50 000 to K60 000 in the lake costs almost K150 000 when it arrives on the shore.”
For the crowds waiting for these catches on the shoreline, the traders’ and middlemen’s rush for profit has not only made fish pricy but also inaccessible for many.
The businesspersons have silently priced out poor lakeshore communities.
Curse of free market
When the boats arrive from the waters, the vendors offload their catches into baskets—ready for the 60 kilometre (km) trip to Mzuzu.
Nearby, the vendors and middlemen auction their meagre catch at a higher price to their colleagues who have been waiting on the shore for many years. As the traders from Mzuzu City and surrounding trading centres jostle for fish, wads of cash clenched in hand, the locals look on hopelessly.
Some of them are heard whining about how their children are starving for fish and stunting while all the catch goes to cities and towns.
But the city residents hoping to grab a fish or two when they travel to the lakeshore town of Nkhata Bay are also finding it difficult to do so.
In fact, some leave the fishing spots empty-handed as they say fish has become more exorbitant on the beach than in Mzuzu where supply rises as catches from Nkhata Bay, Karonga, Likoma and Nkhotakota districts converge.
“The size of catches in natural water bodies is shrinking due to overfishing, use of unsustainable fishing methods and fishing gear. As a result, we are seeing a trend where the people who live along the lake increasingly find it harder to buy fish because prices are going up as vendors delve into the lake to outsmart their competitors,” says Nkhata Bay district fisheries officer Dellings Kamenya.
He calls it “the curse of the liberalised market”.
He explains: “Prices keep soaring as fish move from one vendor to another before it reaches the shore. They all want profits.
“I cry for the poor Malawians who have grown up eating fishing as a cheap source of protein. Sadly, we are in a free-market economy and there is nothing government can do to control prices and safeguard the nutrition of those who cannot access fish anymore. Prices will keep rising for as long as supply is lower than demand.”
At stake is the food security and nutrition of the Malawians in abject poverty who constitute most of the population.
The population has grown from 3.6 million to 17 million since 1960.
However, an average Malawian’s fish uptake has fallen.
The Department of Fisheries is worried that a single person in the country used to eat 14 kilogrammes (kg) of fish per year, but now eats just about half that much.
In 2016, government adopted the National Fisheries and Aquaculture Policy to change the picture.
In their minds, the policymakers envisaged sustainable fishing methods, conservation and upland ponds increasing everyone’s annual fish consumption from eight to 10 kg by 2020.
But the director of fisheries Steve Donda told The Nation last year—during a visit to Lake Chiuta in Machinga where falling water levels and fish scarcity has led to fistfights and machete clashes between Malawian and Mozambican fishing crews—that achieving this vision will never be easy.
“We have one of the lowest per capita fish consumption in the world. To increase this, the locals need to take the lead to conserve the fish stocks in our lakes. Fishers must observe the closed seasons to let fish multiply and grow. Most importantly, they must avoid using illegal fishing gear which catches even young fish,” he said.
However, it is not only in Nkhata Bay where communities along the lake are finding it increasingly harder to access fish.
There are similar cases at Ngala in Karonga on the northern tip of the lake, Nkhotakota in the Central Region and Mangochi on the southern tip.
In fact, traditional leaders and beach fisheries committees in Mangochi have come up with bylaws that ban sales of fish before it lands on the shore.
Zelina Chikafa, from Michesi Village near Makawa fishing community in Mangochi likens the vendors to pirates hijacking boatloads of fish before it reaches the plates of poor communities on the shore.
“These traders do not care about anyone. All the worry about is profit. They are squeezing us to a point where fish is beyond reach. They aren’t even giving fishers a chance to save one or two for their families,” she says.
Chikafa, a fishmonger for the past 15 years, takes care of her aged mother and seven children.
She laments that mid-water sales continue starving and impoverishing shoreline families despite the ban.
“Buying fish on the beach is a fight of the fittest and those with money. Women, who have families to feed and small-scale business to run are the main losers as buyers name their money and fishers sell to the highest bidder.
She reckons the fierce auctions expose fishers, traders, locals and other groups to sexually transmitted infections as some women exchange their bodies with fish.
It can only worsen
According to Mangochi district fisheries officer Mbuluwa Nyasulu, this is just a glimpse of how the poor are bearing the brunt of falling fish stocks and catches which are increasing inequalities in shoreline economies.
“The poor are paying a huge cost. They absorb all the profits that traders and middlemen make as the fish sometimes exchange hands five times from the fishers in the lake to the locals waiting for a buy on the shore. Sadly, others, especially women and girls, are at the risk of contracting STIs, HIV unintended pregnancies to increase their chances of buying fish,” he says.
But Njoka warns that things may only get worse as fishers and businesspeople cash in.
He says: “Shoreline communities will continue bearing the brunt of skyrocketing prices. In the lake, we are seeing a trend in which fishers are raising selling prices now and again. We cannot bear the pain of seeing the meagre catch they sell for K50 000 in the waters going at as high as K150 000 on the shore.”