Chambo: Malawi’s prized fish faces extinction

In the decade that fisherman Edward Njeleza has been trawling the deep, clear waters of Lake Malawi in Africa’s Great Rift Valley, he has seen his once abundant catch shrink by 90 percent.

Now he spends most days on the shore searching for pods and a special type of grass he uses to make necklaces, key rings and bracelets to supplement his income.

In the past, he and his nine fishing mates would on average catch roughly 300 kilogrammes of fish a day, but that haul has dropped to no more than 25 kilogrammes.

Fishermen pulling up a fishing net on the shores of Lake Malawi, near the Makawa Fishing Village in the district of Mangochi on May 18, 2014

Fishermen pulling up a fishing net on the shores of Lake Malawi, near the Makawa Fishing Village in the district of Mangochi on May 18, 2014

“We go fishing but never come back with much,” said Njeleza, waiting by the lake with a bag full of homemade jewellery slung over his shoulder.

“And we don’t catch big fish.”

Lake Malawi, one of the deepest in the world, is estimated to have the largest concentration of freshwater fish species — up to 1,000, according to the UN Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

And a local favourite, the Oreochromis lidole or “chambo” as it is known in this landlocked southeast Africa state where it is a vital source of protein for millions of poor, is among the hardest hit.

In its last study on chambo, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature estimated in 2004 that the population had declined 70 percent over the previous 10 years, William Darwall, head of the IUCN’s freshwater biodiversity unit, told AFP.

Overfishing is the main cause, and scientists blame both a lack of government muscle to enforce seasonal fishing bans as well as environmental degradation.

“The primary reasons why the fish stocks, specifically chambo, are going down is overfishing, (and) degradation issues because of factors related to the effects of climate change,” said William Chadza, director of the Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy in Blantyre, the country’s finance and commerce hub.

Climate change is said to have affected rainfall patterns and caused a drop in the lake’s water levels, also hit by the effects of deforestation on tributaries feeding the lake.

Some officials fear chambo could face extinction in Lake Malawi.

“It’s a very big issue, and I think if we don’t do something … we could be in a dire state shortly,” said Chadza.

But rangers say the fight to save the fish is a losing battle.

“We are not winning,” said Gervaz Thamala, chief of the Wildlife and Environmental Society of Malawi.

Laws to protect the chambo exist, but “the major problem which we have is governance,” Thamala said.

“It seems we are going towards a disaster, which is quite critical,” he warned.

“Extinction is also a possibility because we have not fully developed the aquaculture sector, which could act as a buffer.”

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