Thursday, March 29, 2007


Scientists predict that global fish stocks are falling so swiftly that, unless drastic measures are taken, many species will disappear from our plates within the next 40 years. In Malawi, there are signs that it may already be happening
by Pilirani Semu-Banda


Malawi hit the world's headlines last October when David Banda was adopted by Madonna. Prior to this, few people outside of Africa knew much about Malawi, apart perhaps from the fact that it has the fifth largest lake in the world.

But like the turmoil in the Madonna case, which saw human rights activists fighting against David’s adoption, Lake Malawi is in turmoil with its fish stocks diminishing and the fishing industry suffering low catches.

Lake Malawi contains the most diverse lake fish fauna in the world with an estimated 1,000 species. (1) But Maldeco Fisheries Limited, the only industrial fishing company operating in the country, is currently producing just over 30 percent of the fish it produced 10 years ago. (2)

Income lost

One person who is suffering the effects of the declining fish stocks in Lake Malawi is 44-year-old fisherman Samson Chelinda from the lake district of Mangochi. He laments his gradual loss of income from fish sales.

“My whole livelihood and that of my family comes from fish sales but now I struggle to make a living since I don’t catch as much fish as I used to. I now struggle to pay school fees for my children and I can no longer afford basic necessities,” said Chelinda.

Lake Malawi is a crucial source of income to many Malawians. According to the country’s 2006/2007 national budget, about 1.6 million out of 12 million Malawians are dependent on the fishing industry. In addition, more than 300,000 people make their living from activities related to the lake and its fish (3). These activities include fish processing, marketing of services and products, boat building and engine repair.

The industry also has a much wider importance. Fish provides over 60 percent of the dietary animal protein intake of Malawians and 40 percent of Malawians’ total protein supply. (4)

However, the budgetary report also confirmed the sharp decline in fish caught in Lake Malawi. The last available data shows that the quantity of fish delivered fell from 69,100 tonnes in 1998 to 44,849 tonnes a year later.

The plunging fish stocks is also negatively affecting Malawi’s tourist industry. With its deep, clear waters and mountain backdrop, the Lake Malawi national park is a natural aquarium and is among the most popular tourist destinations in the country (5).

Tour guide Maxwell Chefasi says the evidence is unequivocal. “There are some fish species which you don’t see anymore when you visit Lake Malawi. The fish stocks are slowly diminishing,” says Chefasi.

Time to act

The primary reasons for the shrinking fish stocks are unsustainable fishing practices and non-compliance with fishing regulations, according to Malawi’s Department of Fisheries. (6)

Malawians agree that something needs to be done to arrest and reverse the decline of the Lake Malawi. Indeed, the Malawian government has implemented several initiatives to boost fish stocks and to re-establish Lake Malawi as a sustainable resource.

The first is a ‘Fish Restoration Strategic Plan’ that involves Lake Malawi’s most popular species, called chambo (Oreochromis karongae). This once prolific species is on the brink of extinction and the programme involves restocking the lake with chambo bred outside the lake and then re-introduced.

The government has also placed a ban on the use of high-yield fishing gear in Lake Malawi between October and December, the crucial spawning season. Communities living on the shores of the lake are encouraged to police this initiative.

In addition, Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika launched a fish breeding programme for the export market in 2006. Under this programme, fish are bred and raised in cages which allows greater control over the population.

However, talking about initiatives and changes in policy is one thing, making them work and sustaining the initiatives is another. Only if Malawians adhere to the plans might there be hope that fish stocks will recover.

Worldwide problem

In Africa, declining fish stocks are not unique to Malawi. The fishing industry in neighbouring South Africa also had a turbulent 2006 which was characterised by low catches, smaller fish and longer trips to fertile fishing grounds. (7)

It is a similar story across the globe. A recent study of more than 100 fishing regions, published in the journal Science, suggested that if current trends are maintained, every seafood species will have collapsed below commercially viable levels by 2048. (8)

The report blamed the problem on over-fishing, pollution and habitat destruction — mostly on coastlines and in coral regions. Researchers assessed catch numbers recorded by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation and the Sea Around Us Project, at the University of Columbia. The stark conclusion was that fish stocks will collapse in the next 40 years.

They also analysed human impact on 12 regions, including the North Sea, the Baltic Sea and the Adriatic Sea, examined archives and sediment cores over a thousand-year period and looked at initiatives designed to promote species recovery.

Action required

The study by Science also found that the global cod catch has decreased from 3.1 million tonnes in 1970 to 950,000 tonnes in 2000, that and that fish stocks in North Atlantic are one sixth of levels 100 years ago.

On a positive note, the researchers stated that once marine ecosystems receive protection, they quickly recover. Increases in biodiversity were associated with large increases in fisheries production and with increased and lucrative, tourism, they reported.

It is clear that individual countries need to forge regional and global partnerships to ensure that the battle against the declining fish stocks is fought as a united front. This needs to happen soon but political commitment is still feeble.

Nowhere is the degree of urgency more apparent than on the shores of Lake Malawi. The worried looks on the faces of returning fishermen sum up the desperate plight of their traditional natural larder. Unless the tide is turned soon, the lake may become little more than pretty, yet lifeless, tourist attraction.



1- United Nations Environment Programme -

2 - Maldeco Fisheries Limited Annual Report – 2006

3 - Malawi National Budget 2006/2007 – June 2006

4 - International Institute for Environment and Development - December 2004 -

5 - UNESCO World Heritage -

6 - Department of Fisheries in Malawi Report 2006 - Ministry of Environmental Affairs
7 - Business Report - January 16 2007 -

8 – The Times – November 3 2006 -


© Pilirani Semu-Banda - February 2007

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