At a fish 'maternity ward' in Malawi, one man inspires an entire community
By Issa Mwanjabe and Mercy Phiri
Every morning, 27-year-old Amini Mustafa goes to a swamp near his house, throwing in maize brans and chicken dung. This swamp, which looks deserted because of the old boats and branches that litter it, is not an ordinary lagoon. It is a fish sanctuary, a breeding area that Mustafa created and nurtures.
“This fish sanctuary has over five fish species, which I brought from the lake,” Mustafa explains. “At present, there are a lot of fingerings (small fish) as well as bigger fish. Those boats and old branches are not trash. I deliberately placed them there so that fish can find hiding and breeding space.”
Mustafa, a father of five, is secretary of the Makumba Beach Village Committee, or BVC, along Lake Malawi. This BVC is one of the committees that manage sustainable fisheries along the southeastern arm of Lake Malawi, the lake’s main breeding area for fish. Mustafa and other members of the Makumba BVC were trained by the Fisheries Integration of Society and Habitats project, or FISH, in adaptive participatory fisheries co-management. Funded by USAID, FISH works to increase social, ecological and economic resilience to climate change and improve biodiversity conservation through sustainable fisheries co-management across all major lakes in Malawi.
The Makumba BVC decided to stop fishermen from using illegal fishing gears, protect the rivers that flow into the lake, and create a fish sanctuary within the lake to improve sustainable fishing in their area.
In April 2017, the BVC identified a place in the lake to set aside as a fish sanctuary and installed some old boats and tree trunks to protect the area from drag nets that catch small fish and destroy submerged aquatic vegetation, a critical habitat for young fish. Unfortunately, a few months later, the sanctuary was swept away by commercial fish trawlers fishing illegally in the area. The destruction deeply affected the morale of the BVC members, so they weren’t interested in constructing another fish sanctuary.
But Mustafa was not deterred. He thought he could still do something, applying the knowledge he gained through a FISH training. In September 2017, he saw a niche in a swamp connected to the lake.
“I knew that this could be used as a sanctuary, so I made a ridge separating the swamp from the lake, gathered old boats that were abandoned and sunk them in the mini lagoon I made,” he says.
He also promoted natural regeneration around the site and planted reeds in areas that had been eroded by over-grazing of cattle and hippopotami.
“I started transporting different species of fish from the lake to the lagoon. Right now there are several species, including makumba, chambo, katukusi, mbaba and mbenje.”
Mustafa feeds the fish in his sanctuary a mixture of maize bran and chicken dung, which he places in feeding areas around the fish sanctuary. He also patrols the area at night with the help of his two dogs. It means long days, but Mustafa doesn’t mind.
“I don’t complain because I know my hard work is not in vain,” he says.
Mustafa patrols the sanctuary.
Mustafa’s initiative inspired other members of his BVC, who have joined him in caring for the sanctuary. Now they call it the “maternity ward” because so many baby fish are living in the lagoon. Mustafa also inspired the BVC to revamp the sanctuary they used to have in the lake.
The BVC also conducts community sensitizations and enforcement in order to stop children who’d been fishing with mosquito nets in the maternity ward. The BVC, with support from their community, confiscates and destroys any illegal nets found in the area.
The maternity ward has become an important resource to the lake, as it brings fish into the lake during rainy season.
“During the closed season, which happens to be the rainy season, the water table rises, allowing fish to move from the maternity ward to the lake as well as back to the ward,” Mustafa explains. “This allows bigger fish to go into the lake permanently as they look for deeper waters.”
Mustafa’s initiative has also inspired other BVCs around Lake Malawi. BVCs in Nanumbwa and Moto are now building fish sanctuaries similar to Mustafa’s, and 10 other local BVCs have planned educational visits to see Mustafa’s work.
The FISH project takes pride in community ownership of local ecosystems and the resources in them, because it is key to ensuring the project’s results are sustainable.
The FISH project is funded by USAID and is led by Pact and a consortium of partners. The five-year project consortium includes The University of Rhode Island (URI), Christian Aid (CA), Emmanuel International (EI), Wildlife and Environmental Society of Malawi (WESM), Community Initiative for Self Reliance (CISER) and the Center for Environmental Policy and Advocacy (CEPA).