In key milestone, Pact’s REFRESH project hands over new technology for Lake Malawi biodiversity monitoring

September 29, 2022
Fishers at work in Malawi. Credit: Maggie Dougherty/Pact

Since 2014, Pact and USAID have been working with lakeside communities in Malawi to save the country’s precious lake resources. Lake Malawi – the most biologically diverse lake in the world – provides critical livelihoods and nutrition for much of the country’s population. But environmental degradation and overfishing threaten its future.

Pact’s USAID-funded REFRESH project works hand in hand with local communities and authorities to restore Lake Malawi’s natural fisheries productivity and ensure that its aquatic habitats are healthy and well-managed, that endemic fish populations are self-sustaining, and that Lake Malawi fisheries are sustainable.

With support from Pact, the Malawi Department Of Fisheries has established community-managed sanctuaries for fish species that are in a state of collapse or threatened. The sanctuaries are monitored through regular sampling of fish biodiversity using open-water trawling. It’s a key tool in restoring Lake Malawi, and yet it is also environmentally damaging. The sampling procedure requires the capture of fish that are not returned to the water. Trawling also destroys aquatic vegetation that provides food and refuge to juvenile fish.

To overcome this challenge, REFRESH has worked in partnership with Malawi’s Department of Fisheries to design and launch a new kind of monitoring system that uses technology – namely a remote operated underwater vehicle (ROUV). REFRESH procured the ROUV and has supported officials and communities to use it as part of an effective monitoring program. In a key milestone, USAID and Pact recently handed over the equipment to the Department of Fisheries.

“The data captured through the underwater camera will greatly help the government of Malawi by making sure that it is making decisions based on the reality on the ground concerning fisheries resources, as they are a crucial component of the country’s economy,” said Natasha de Marcken, USAID’s acting mission director in Malawi, who took part in the August handover ceremony.

Natasha de Marcken, USAID’s acting mission director in Malawi, hands over the ROUV. Credit: Oris Chimenya/USAID

The ROUV is the world’s most affordable high-performance underwater camera. It is extremely flexible in its operations and includes open-source software. The equipment will be used for research and biodiversity monitoring collaboration with researchers from Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Malawi University of Science and Technology, and University of Malawi, to develop protocols for exploring the series of sanctuaries developed in Lake Malawi.

The REFRESH project has also handed over smart phones, desktop computers and laptops for data storage and sharing to support the implementation of a mobile app for fish data collection, which the project developed in collaboration with the Department of Fisheries. The app is replacing the current system of using paper forms to collect fish catch data through catch assessment surveys. The change is in line with the Malawi government’s initiative to move away from the use of paper forms to collect data.

The equipment will greatly help the Department of Fisheries and research institutions in bridging research capacity gaps, Malawian officials said.

“The computers and the server will solve some of our data management challenges, particularly in data storage and retrieval,” said Salim M’balaka, Principle Fisheries Research Officer, Section Head, Stock Assessment and Statistics.

Added MP Eisenhower Nduwa Mkaka, Minister of Natural Resources and Climate Change: “The state-of-the-art equipment provided by the REFRESH project will greatly improve the Department of Fisheries research work.”

For fishing communities, the new equipment and monitoring capabilities will mean improved service delivery by the Department of Fisheries and ultimately a healthier Lake Malawi for the benefit of all.