Thursday, 2 July 2015

Something fishy out there



TWO girls fishing using a mosquito net on Lake Mweru. Picture by Jack Zimba

IT’S Friday 05:30 hours and our small fishing party pushes the boat into Lake Bangweulu in Luapula Province. Leading the party is Bernard Chipulu, a third-generation fisherman who has been plying his trade on this huge expanse of water since he was a boy.
He and his three nephews then peddle the banana boat into the deep waters of the lake. My fear of the lake and the dangers lurking beneath it – real or imaginary - are confirmed by Mr Chipulu, who tells me his net was broken by crocodiles a few days ago.

Mr Chipulu and his nephews were going to check on 4,400 metres of netting they cast into the lake the previous day. There is a sense of optimism about today’s catch. One of Mr Chipulu’s nephews reported sighting a school of tiger fish around the area where the fishermen cast their nets.
After peddling for about an hour, we finally reach the nets. By this time, the sun is a small ball of striking amber emerging out of the water.
There is a palpable feeling of anticipation as the men begin to pull the first net into the boat. It’s a 1,000-metre net.
The fish start coming in, but in long intervals, first, a tiger fish, which is carefully disentangled from the nylon mesh and thrown into the boat. The gasping fish lies on the boat floor and occasionally lets out a furious struggle for life.
The fish come in different types – impende (tilapia), imbilia and kabombola, a member of the catfish family with spikes sharp enough to puncture the belly of a grown man.
After pulling in all the net into the boat, we only have about six fish and we move on to the next net, which is 2,000 metres long. This one yields a few more tigers and kabombola. Disappointment soon registers on the fishers’ faces.
After toiling for almost three hours on the lake, we peddle back to the shore with a boat full of netting and only 30 tigers, plus a few more of the catfish-like fish.
The tiger fish will be sold to the fishmongers for about K100, who will sell it at a higher price in Samfya or Mansa. The rest of the fish is shared among the four men for home consumption.
The dwindling catches of fish from the lake spell tough times for Chipulu and his family of six.
Luapula is a land of lakes, rivers, swamplands, plus a good number of waterfalls, but that equation no longer equals abundant fish, owing to decades of indiscriminate fishing.
Three of Luapula’s important fish sources – Luapula River, Lake Bangweulu and Lake Mweru - are now yielding far less fish than in years past.
The scarcity of fish in the province can be seen from the high prices on the local markets, where the fish costs just as much as in Lusaka, save for the chisense, which can still be found in abundance in these waters. 
The extent of over-fishing and the impact of illegal fishing methods, such as use of mosquito nets for fishing on Lake Bangweulu are now clearly evident.
Travel over 300km further north to Nchelenge district and the story on Lake Mweru is no different.
Here, too, the use of mosquito nets for fishing is rife. In fact, it was here that I found four teen-aged girls fishing using mosquito nets along the lakeshore. The girls had caught about a half-bucket of chisense.

And at one government office in Milenge district, there was a huge pile of mosquito nets. The nets were confiscated from fishermen on Luapula River.  
Amon Foloweza is the district fisheries officer for Samfya. He says the catches on Lake Bangweulu are going down at an alarming rate.
According to statistics, in 2012 Luapula contributed 35 percent to the country’s total fish production and of that, 17 percent was from Lake Bangweulu. Although latest statistics on fish stocks are not available, Mr Foloweza says the catches have reduced over the years.

“There are those species that we call commercial species; the ones that the fishermen really go for such as the tilapia – those have really gone down,” he says.
He suggests diversification.
“If our fishers were to be diverse enough or explore other species, it will help reduce the pressure on the commercial species,” says Mr Foloweza.
Lake Bangweulu is said to have more than 75 known fish species.
But the fishermen fish for business, and some species do not sell on the market.
Even the much-sung-about imbowa (hammered catfish) is not really the fishermen’s most prized catch as it does not make very good sales. Many people will not eat the scale-less fish for religious reasons.
The fish does not even make it on the menu at most of the local restaurants in Samfya.
There is now an ambitious project to restock Lake Bangweulu with tilapia by setting up cages where the fish is allowed to grow and breed freely.
Three cages, each stocked with 450 tilapia, were installed on the lake in February.
The cages and the waters around them are strictly guarded to keep away the fishermen. And the fish is fed to prevent it from wandering very far from the cages.
Similar cages are found on Lake Mweru in Nchelenge. Mr Foloweza says there will be need for more cages. However, it will be years before such efforts replenish this aquatic wilderness.
And the biggest challenge the fisheries department faces is trying to stop fishermen from using illegal fishing methods. What makes this work even harder are the high poverty levels among the fishing communities.
“High poverty is what causes people to use illegal fishing methods,” says Mr Chipulu, who is also chairperson for Chikonde Fishing Club.
Mr Chipulu wants government to start giving the fishermen small loans during the period when the fish ban is enforced to cushion their families from hunger and poverty.
He says the period when the fish ban is enforced – December 1 to February 28 - is crucial as it coincides with the first term for school-going children. This, he says, places a lot of financial pressure on parents.
“Our friends in Malawi are given loans by the government to help them survive during the fish ban,” he says.
Mr Foloweza says many fishermen use mosquito nets to fish because they catch more fish that way.
But a mosquito net is not selective and its use has far-reaching consequences on marine life - destroying breading grounds and migratory routes for fish. Even the fish spawn is not spared.
There are many traders selling young fish on the lakeshore market in Samfya, evidence of illegal fishing.
And Mr Foloweza says the majority of people in the local prison are fishermen caught and prosecuted for using illegal fishing methods and for defying the fish ban. But he says penalties offenders are given are not punitive enough.
The use of illegal fishing methods is widespread in Luapula.
In the swamplands, fishermen have been known to set traps across channels used by fish going to breeding grounds.
“They are disturbing the fish which is going to breed. They catch the fish and the eggs and so tomorrow there might not be any fish,” says Mr Foloweza.
Yes, Luapula may have abundant waters, but there might be no fish left for future generations.
It’s early morning Saturday and a 10-year-old boy on the banks of Luapula River in Milenge disentangles his net besides a small dug-out canoe. Even though he is too young to understand what is happening to the river, he has worry written on his face.
“How much fish did you catch?” I ask the little boy.
“Nothing,” he replies.

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