Tuesday, 29 January 2019

The last catch

Fishing rigs venture out on Lake Kariba. Pictures by Jack Zimba

Musa makes a fire on deck.

Clever prepares the net before setting out.

Preparing for the catch.

A White-winged Tern in flight.
Clever packs his catch in a crate.
 The last catch

Overfishing affects Lake Kariba’s stocks




IT IS past 16:00 hours and one by one, the fishing rigs come alive with the familiar tak-tak sound, and leave the harbour, ploughing deeper into Lake Kariba. They will remain on the man-made lake till morning.

Today the fishermen are going for their last catch of the sardines, or kapenta, before the lake is closed for fishing. It will open again on January 28. The moon ban, as it is known, only lasts 10 days.

There were 20 rigs moored at the harbour when I arrived, but now only a few are remaining.

One of those is operated by Clever Siantema. He does not own the rig, but operates it for a certain businessman.

Clever is the captain of the fishing rig, and is assisted by two young men – Musa Sensela and Bright Mwengo.

Clever’s rig is newer, with a bigger motor than most of the rigs that are found at this harbour in Siavonga.

The rigs are manufactured locally and cost around K70,000.

Clever started fishing when he was a small boy. Now in his 40s, he has become an expert at the trade.

At exactly 17:40 hours, he cranks the engine of the rig, firing it up and sending puffs of black smoke into the crisp air.

Musa and Bright then winch the rig’s anchor – a large rock - out of the water, and we drift away.

Lovemore Mweemba, who manages the rig on behalf of his uncle, waves us off with a thumbs-up. I’m sure he will be praying for a good catch tonight.

There are a number of rigs already ahead of us, droning away across the shimmering silver lake. From a distance, the fishing rigs look like small oil rigs.

For the fishermen, it is like a race to the best fishing grounds, but it is hard to tell where the biggest catch of sardines lies tonight.

At 18:42 hours, the sun sinks into the horizon, and at exactly 18:45 hours, Clever signals to Musa, who turns off the rig’s engine.

“We will try to fish here,” says Clever as he scans the surrounding waters.

Bright, who is the youngest of the crew, says a little prayer as the men let down the anchor.

“God bless our catch,” he says.

With the rig firmly held in position, Clever and Musa dive into the lake, splashing and laughing like small boys at play.

But recreation time does not last long, soon the men get back on deck, lower the big net into the lake and then turn on another motor that powers the four halogen lights that lure the fish into the net.

We all anxiously peer into the dark water to check any sign of the kapenta. There is hardly any.

After two hours, Clever signals and we all begin to winch the net out of the water.

Even with the four of us applying great effort, it is a huge task that leaves us panting.

The net is heavy, not from the fish but from the weight of the water.

Our first catch is about 20kg of kapenta (about half a crate).

“You see how hard this work is, but we get very little money,” says Clever.

The captain gets only K12 for every 20kg that he catches, while Musa and Bright get K10 each.

Clever now wants a job in Lusaka.

At 20:45 hours, we let down the net for our second catch.

By now, our rig is swarmed by white-winged terns, probably a hundred of them.

This migratory bird comes all the way from Europe, escaping the bitter cold winters.

The birds fly around us like moths before a light, restless and relentless, skating the water, picking the dead fish that fall off the deck, and plucking small insects from the sky.

Against the bright light of our rig, the birds look like ghostly creatures.

I make myself comfortable on an old tyre tied to the side metal railing of the rig.

At first, sleep is hard to come, exposed to the elements. Luckily the heavens did not open up with rain that night and the lake was calm.

Eventually, I’m able to fall asleep, but only in short intervals.

Every two hours, Clever whistles, summoning us to the winch.

Clever works hard, constantly pouring water into the small diesel generator droning throughout the night to keep the four lights on.

For me, spending the night on the rig is curious adventure, but for Clever, Bright and Musa, it is a livelihood. If they do not have a good catch, it means they don’t have income.

At 22:45 hours, we winch in our second catch. It is much less than the first one.

There is disappointment on the fishermen’s faces, but they lower the net with optimism again and again.

At 05:10 hours we haul in our last catch. It is even less than the previous one.

But this one also lands in a tiger fish on the deck. The three men are excited at the sight of the medium-sized fish.

By now the ghostly birds have disappeared to wherever they came from. During day time, this lake is patrolled by different kinds of fowls, including the African fish eagle and the kingfisher.

At 05:25 hours, we head back to shore.

After toiling for 11 hours, we only harvest about 30kg of kapenta.

Musa makes a fire on the deck and puts a pot of nshima, while Clever guts the tiger and prepares it for a meal.

Before we reach the shore, Clever beckons to a man in a motorised banana boat zigzagging on the lake from rig to rig.

The man is buying fish from the fishermen before they reach the harbour.

It is one way the fishermen make extra money, but the rig owners must not know.

As the sun rises, one by one, the rigs return with the same tak-tak sound, but for the next 10 days they will lie silent.

At the harbour, Lovemore is waiting to receive us, but discouragement registers on his face when he sees the catch.

Women carrying big dishes hover from rig to rig and then haggle over prices with the fishermen.

One of the women waiting for our rig is Linda Hanyolo. She is a fishmonger who supplies kapenta to Lusaka and sometimes to the Copperbelt.

Linda buys 20kg of our fish and takes it to her house on a hill and spreads the small fish on a suspended net to dry.

Within a few hours the fish is dry and ready for the market.

Our catch will eventually find itself on a dinner table in some home in Lusaka.

But this expanse of water, like many water bodies across the country, is suffering from over-fishing and is yielding less and less fish.

Lake Kariba is over 223 kilometres long and up to 40 kilometres in width and covers an area of 5,580 square kilometres, shared by Zambia and its neighbour Zimbabwe.

On my night-out, I counted 93 rigs in our vicinity, and yet there were still more beyond the horizon, including across the border in Zimbabwe.

According to one government official, there are supposed to be 500 rigs on the lake – 275 from Zambia and 225 from Zimbabwe - but Siavonga alone has 320 registered rigs.

Further west, Sinazongwe has an even larger number of rigs. Chipepo also has its own share.

“The lake is still the same, but the number of fishing rigs has increased,” says Miyanda Maiba, who is in charge of the department of fisheries in the district.

He says the number of rigs is no longer sustainable.

“We have gone far beyond the number recommended by researchers,” he says.

Mr Maiba says the increase can be blamed on political interference in the past.

Previously, this business was dominated by the white settlers in this region, then the government decided to open it up to indigenous fishers.

Some rig owners are now giving up this business due to poor catches, venturing into fish farming instead.

Mr Maiba says the only solution is to reduce the number of rigs.

Others suggest closing the lake for longer periods could help revamp the fish stocks.

The fishermen say when there was a ban on fishing because of the cholera outbreak last year, which lasted six months, the catches were very good.

For now, the fishermen have to do with small catches.

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