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Too many fishermen cause stocks to dwindle in giant Lake Malawi

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by Felix Mponda*

Saidi Afida rows his dugout canoe back to the beach on the shores of Lake Malawi with a worried face.
"Things have really changed," says Afida, in between selling his catch to a group of women at Senga Bay beach in central Malawi.
"Just five years ago I came back from fishing with a full canoe every day. Now it's barely half full," he says.
Afida, 33, knows the cause of the problem but he can't do anything about it.
"There are too many of us fishing in this lake. Everybody has become a fisherman and we all fish from the shallow waters."
The 22,490-square-kilometre (8,683-square-mile) Lake Malawi, bordered by Tanzania and Mozambique, covers a third of the country and is Africa's third largest body of fresh water.
Home to more than 500 species of fish, it plays a crucial nutritional role by providing more than 60 percent of national protein requirements.
It also is a key source of employment in one of Africa's most impoverished nations. While an estimated 40,000 people fish its waters, many more derive their livelihoods indirectly through industries such as fish processing and boat repairs.
Alexander Bulirani, director of fisheries in the ministry of agriculture and food security, says the number of fishermen had increased by 124 percent in the last decade but he denies stocks are running low.
"The lake still has a substantial amount of fish in deep waters" which ordinary fishermen cannot reach without motorised boats.
He said recent research had shown the existence of deep-water offshore fish stocks estimated at a maximum sustainable yield of about 33,000 tonnes per year.
Despite the size of the fleet more than doubling, fish production is currently at 50,000 tonnes per annum, down from a peak of 75,000 tonnes in the 1980s.

'What will our children feed and rely on?'

In order to help fishermen gain access to stocks in deep waters, the government has teamed up with the African Development Bank to provide credit to acquire equipment such as outboard engines, fishing nets and drying racks.
Moses Banda, chief fisheries research officer, said the project seeks to give credit to 7,000 fishing communities in four districts along the lakeshore, including Mangochi in southern Malawi, where most of the chambo is caught.
Bankrolled to the tune of 183 million kwacha (130,000 US dollars), the main aim of the project is to improve household incomes in a country where half of the 13 million citizens live on less than a dollar a day.
Nevertheless, many fishermen fear their industry is doomed without a clear recognition that stocks are finite and that the best chance of preserving stocks in the long-term is to make alternative employment more attractive.
"Will the fish last in this lake? What will our children feed and rely on?" says Iman Saidi.
The 24-year-old has opted for a life as a fishermen even though he had wanted to become a teacher.
"I thought I could become a teacher for a change, but with no jobs, I need to feed my family," he said.
Sandalamu Katembo, 70, who retired two decades ago, says there are no job opportunities in this small fishing town on the lake's southwestern shores.
"Young men go to school but they end up taking up fishing as their career. Why go to school then?" he asks.
Daulos Mauambeta, executive director of the leading environmental group, Wildlife Society of Malawi (WSM), says the only solution to halting overfishing is to stop the "open policy" which allows anybody with a licence to "fish as long as they want".
"Malawi needs to establish a quota system. We have this major weakness which allows anybody to fish the whole year. Fish is free here," he told AFP.
Mauambeta said the fishing industry lacks the capacity to monitor and enforce its own regulations.
"There are no guards to monitor the sizes and volumes of catch. In other countries, that's very strict."
The WSM chief also suggests that fishermen must be taught conservation.
"Fishermen are business people, not conservation people. We need to breed a culture that they need to conserve fish to sustain their business."