The poor subsistence fishers living along the lake-shore who rely on fish for their daily food needs lose out as demand and prices increase. Already, distribution of fish is skewed towards consumers in industrial countries, where average consumption per person is three times the level in developing countries.10 This skewed distribution leads to malnutrition and other problems for the fishing communities, because while consumers in the commercial markets eat fish primarily as a luxury item or supplement to an already balanced diet, small subsistence fishers rely solely on fish as their source of protein. In addition, most of the commercial fish catch in Malawi was purchased by the World Food Program in the 1990s to feed the increasing number of Mozambican refugees.
Impact on The Lake-Shore Culture
The people living in the lake-shore areas have always relied on the lake for food (fish), transport, water, recreation, and other daily needs. The lake is their life. Now with the introduction of large scale commercial fishing, they are finding it difficult to continue this traditional way of life. In some cases living patterns have been profoundly disrupted because of the introduction of commercial fishing. People are increasingly forced to modify their cultural ways in order to find alternative sources of food.
Government attempts to address the problem of overfishing often mistakenly put additional and undue restrictions on subsistence fishermen. Those living in these fishing villages do not always understand government conservation policies, such as fishing restrictions in certain months of the year to protect the fish during the breeding season.
Unlike large commercial boats which fish in all parts of the lake, poor fishermen rely on simple dugout canoes which only reach the shallow waters near the shore. However, these are also the areas where fish come to breed. Government conservation policies have been enacted to protect such areas, increasing the tension between government conservation policy and people's livelihoods. The fishing population, still holding onto traditional practices, suffers as a result of the government's conservation policies and consequent overfishing of the commercial industry. They will continue to resist outside conservation efforts as long as their needs are not taken into consideration.
The harvest of large quantities of fish has altered the ecological balance in the lake, reducing the numbers and species of fish and affecting other wildlife such as birds which feed on fish. In much of Africa and South America, over-harvesting of species and the introduction of exotic species are among the greatest threats to fresh water biodiversity.11 Researchers and environmentalists are particularly worried about the biodiversity of the African Great lakes of Malawi and Tanganyika after the experience in Lake Victoria, where the introduction of the Nile Perch led to destruction of most indigenous fish species.
Any solution to the problem of species loss in the lake must address the inter-related issues of population growth, economic development, education, and decentralized control.
Family Planning Programs
The government must intensify its family planning program to reduce the current rapid population growth. It is important to understand that the population problem in Malawi is compounded by poverty. Government policies of child spacing and other measures for population reduction have not been effective because the general population still considers a large family (more children) as security in the uncertain conditions of the country--where high infant mortality rates and low life expectancies persist.12 Steps must be taken to address this level of poverty and insecurity in order to allow family planning efforts to be successful.
Add to this the high level of illiteracy in the country which limits work opportunities and hastens the childbearing age for women. It must also be remembered that although the government is actively carrying out a child spacing program, its results will not be seen for a few years because of demographic momentum--nearly half the population in Malawi is below the age of 15!13
Economic development should be part of any efforts to reduce overfishing and loss of species. It is not enough to discourage small fishers from catching fish when they are forced to do so in order to survive. The government must find alternative ways for these people to earn an income other than by fishing. An ongoing Poverty Alleviation Program aims to address the wide income disparity between rural and urban areas, and between rich and poor. Rural people must be rewarded for their efforts to conserve the fish species: if those living in the lake-shore areas receive concrete benefits from conservation, they may change their behavior.
The problem of overfishing also involves the assistance of international and bilateral donors who normally help the country in its economic and social development efforts. It is important to include conservation measures in economic and social development programs to prevent the resulting adverse effects on the lake and fish species when consumption rises.
Malawi, Tanzania and Mozambique, the three countries benefiting directly from the lake, should cooperate to protect the lake and its fish and other species through good management and conservation measures. Secondly, the United Nations Environment Program and other related international bodies should consider assisting in the conservation of the lake. Lake Malawi's fauna is unique, and it has one of the highest species diversities of any lake in the world.
Education and Training
Education of the population is necessary to protect natural resources. This can be conducted through the mass media and other established means of dispensing information. For government policies to work, people must be sensitized to the importance of the lake and the serious threat they pose to its survival.
Education is particularly crucial for people whose culture and lives have directly depended on fish for many years. They should know that the government policy is not there to deprive them of their traditional food but to help preserve it so that they can continue to harvest it in future. Some more culturally sensitive steps are already being taken. For example, the government established the Lake Malawi National Park with the aim of protecting the fish species and at the same time ensuring that surrounding villages would continue to fish, thereby getting funds from tourism without depriving the fishers of their traditional means of living. The education and training should balance immediate consumption need with sustainability and conservation for future generations.
The government has began a new and creative strategy letting the fishing communities control their own fisheries. Recently, the UN Government Fisheries Department, in conjunction with Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), announced that it is changing its policy from direct intervention in regulating fishery to a community based approach to managing fish resources. The government is also implementing several projects with the aim of identifying unexploited and underexploited fish resources and ěto develop appropriate methods and appropriate exploitation levels in order to increase fish production on a regionally sustainable basis.14 Under the new approach people living in the lake shore areas shall be responsible for protecting the fisheries. The Fisheries Department will only provide technical advice without directly enforcing regulations. Enforcement and management will be in the hands of local fishermen and women. It will be interesting to see the results of this new approach.
At the same time, current government regulations to protect the most vulnerable fish at the most vulnerable times of the season must be strongly enforced. When looking at appropriate fish management techniques, it is important to study the historical background to overfishing and loss of species. In Lake Malawi, as the catch of the favored species diminished and the demand for fish increased, fishermen inevitably turned to less favored underdeveloped species. Fifteen years ago all nets used on Lake Malawi were 89mm mesh or larger, and were used to catch large fish only. But as the catch diminished, the fishers resorted to nets with smaller meshes to catch smaller, more abundant species, and inadvertently the young of larger species.15 The result has been rapid decline of larger species which also encourage more fishermen to switch to small-mesh nets. With this situation it is unlikely that the fishermen will manage their catch effectively without the Fisheries Department actively enforcing fishing regulations. While it is important to let fishermen make their own decisions, it is also important for the government to work with local people in the management of the fisheries.
Overfishing and loss of species in Lake Malawi is a serious problem caused by a combination of high population growth, rampant poverty, and other economic factors. Because it is such a complex issue, effective solutions will require a multifaceted approach. Although proper management of the fisheries is vital, these underlying factors must be addressed simultaneously or any improvement in the situation will only be superficial. The changing conditions of the fishery will affect the social and economic welfare of many people living in the lake shore areas and the major cities of Malawi. Some of these solutions may not be politically supported, but political imperatives must not be placed before the interests of the present and future generations of Malawians. □