The fisheries sector represents a potential pathway out of poverty for many smallholder fishers in Malawi.
Fishing is the major socio-economic occupation for the communities around the country’s lakes.
The sector contributes four percent to Malawi’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), provides employment to input suppliers, fishers, processors and traders, and supports household food security.
Although the sector is highly important, the lakes have experienced tragic declining fish catches over the years. This is eroding the overall sustainability of the gains derived from the sector.
Lake Malombe in Mangochi has experienced the hardest tragedy.
In 37 years, from 1980 to 2017, the lake has suffered a 68 percent decline in total annual fish catches as reported by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation Technical Cooperation Project in 2018.
The report further highlights the disappearing of high-value chambo fish which has ecologically been substituted by low-value kambuzi and utaka.
The ecological shift of Lake Malombe is astonishing. usipa has never existed in the lake, but now constitutes part of the catch.
In overall catch, 53 percent constitutes fish and 47 percent snails. This is another big ecological shift in Lake Malombe posing great threat to fisheries production.
The decline has been caused by overfishing due to use of restricted gears such as kandwindwi and mosquito nets.
Some fishers have modified legal gears such as nkacha from the recommended mesh sizes of 3.5 inch to half inch which catch even the smallest size fish.
Failure to comply with regulations poses challenges to sustainability of fish stocks to support sustainable rural economic development of people around Lake Malombe.
Despite these challenges, the lake supports competitive business opportunities which, if properly developed, can support rural economic development for input suppliers, fishers, processors and traders.
The lake supports local boat builders’ enterprises and net selling companies who sell boats and fishing nets to fishers.
Fishers sell fish at a beach price to processors and traders who in turn sell fresh fish, sun-dried fish, smoked fish and deep-fried fish in local markets.
Lake Malombe fishery also supplies fish to several other districts.
Smoked fish is normally supplied in Liwonde and Blantyre; deep-fried fish often goes to Mulanje, Zomba and Liwonde; and open sun-dried fish is usually sold in Mangochi, Liwonde at Mangochi Turn-Off, Machinga, Mulanje, Zomba, Blantyre, Dedza, Chingeni, Lilongwe and Mchinji.
Some traders go as far as Mozambique through Makanjira, Chiponde or Namwera. Others go to Zambia, South Africa and Ethiopia.
Despite declining catches, inland water studies conducted by FAO in 2017 show that the lake is rich in nutrients that can stimulate natural regeneration if proper management strategies are put in place.
To sustainably support rural economic development of people around Lake Malawi, there is need to firstly emphasise on organising the communities to manage the fisheries resources.
Fortunately, the lake has high primary productivity to support natural regeneration or rebuilding.
However, this can only be achieved if fishers adhere to regulations, illegal gears are not used, artificial sanctuaries set by Fish Project in the lake are not invaded and closed season is observed and extended. n