Threat to fish endangers people

Sun Journal

February 12, 2000|By Ben Jacklet | Ben Jacklet,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BOLELA MALUNGA, Malawi -- It's 3.30 a.m., and a strong head wind is blowing across Lake Malawi from the east. Capt. Jeffrey Andoche, a 22-year-old Yao from the lakeshore village of Bolela Malunga (population 550), sets the tempo for his crewmen with evenly cadenced, high-pitched shouts before each new stroke.

The four fishermen, all 22 or younger and built like welterweight boxers, lean into their oars and slowly propel the boat out into the deep waters of the lake. They chatter constantly as they work the oars, joking in Chiyao and laughing when big waves break over the bow.

Andoche and his crewmen work with no motors, no hydraulics and only the most basic fishing gear. The 3,000-foot net they are about to haul is made of cotton string and rubber strips from old tires, and it is frequently ripped by hungry crocodiles. Its sinking lead line consists of baked-mud bricks, and its floating cork line is made of pieces of wood.

The 18-foot fishing vessel has no lights. It was built with wooden planks, and it features palm-frond oarlocks and hand-carved oars. It also leaks badly. Every few minutes one of the crewmen has to break from rowing to bail with an old plastic bottle.

By the time they reach the plastic flag marking their net, morning light is beginning to reflect on the lake, and foraging terns and gulls are on the wing. Crew members Bonafis George and Amos Salimu begin to haul in the net by hand, pulling in tandem while Andoche devours a mango and waits for the first fish to come up over the rail.

The men set their net the day before, when the water was calm. At that time, the heat was brutal, and the moment they finished their work, they stripped down and jumped overboard for a quick swim in the middle of the lake. Then they rowed back to shore and rested for a few hours in the village before waking up in the middle of night to begin the two-hour journey back out, guided by the stars.

The fish they hope to catch, mbaba, are small cichlids that can be found in markets throughout Malawi, splayed open and sun-dried. They aren't the tastiest fish, nor the most valuable. The men would rather be fishing for chambo, a larger fish with more than 10 times the market value. But the chambo season is closed -- officially, anyhow -- because there is a shortage of fish in Lake Malawi.

A 1997 African Technology Forum study found that in 1987, the total commercial catch of fish from the lake was 88,586 tons, of which 101 tons were exported; in 1991, the catch fell to 63,000 tons with 3 tons of exports; and by 1992, it was 69,500, and there were no exports.

The fishing has gotten so sparse in parts of the lake that subsistence fishermen have resorted to using mosquito netting for their shallow-water fishing. South of the village, past the sand bar that separates Lake Malawi from the Shire River, hippos grunt in the shallows as teams of fishermen ages 8 to 45 work all day in waist-deep water, hauling lines by hand and trapping everything that swims.

Wages for the young boys are five kwatcha -- about 10 cents -- if the boat owner is feeling generous, plus whatever fish they can stuff into their pockets to take home to their families.

"People here are born to fish, and they die to fish," says Andoche's friend Dickson Nkakosya, also 22. "From the time when you are born you go to the beach and watch. In three years, you know how to fish. Nobody has to teach you. There are no other jobs for you."

For the hundreds of subsistence-fishing villages like Bolela Malunga, a healthy fish run is as important as a good harvest of maize or a clean source of drinking water. But these shallow areas serve as breeding grounds for many of the lake's fish. Diminishing fish populations are not just a village problem, they are a national problem, and a global one. The fish of Lake Malawi are the primary source of animal protein for a nation of 10 million people.

It takes Andoche and his crewmen about two hours to haul in their net, and when they are finished, 60 or so small fish flop about on the bottom of the boat. The trek back to the beach is somber. The moment the vessel hits the sand, villagers come out from thatch-roofed huts to see the catch. Two fish vendors are buying for 25 kwatcha a dozen.

The vendors haul the fish off in plastic buckets to cut them open and dry them in the sun, or to cook them over burning palm nuts. They will wrap the fish in plastic and stack them in a basket and haul them to the regional center Mangoche, where they will sell them for 6 to 10 kwatcha apiece, depending on size.

After paying the owner of the boat, Andoche has earned 30 kwatcha, roughly 60 cents, for his labor. His adherence to the ban on chambo fishing has not paid off. Others are not so law-abiding. One illegally caught chambo sells for 80 kwatcha to tourists, 50 kwatcha to restaurants and 25 kwatcha to the market.

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