At Malawi's Lake Chilwa, local fishing communities make an important decision for their future
By Mercy Phiri
Lakes are critical to the people of Malawi, providing them with nutrition as well as a vital livelihood. So when local communities decided this winter to extend the closed season at Lake Chilwa, which is Malawi’s second largest lake and accounts for a quarter of all the country’s fish production, it was not a choice they made lightly.
It all began in 2015, when USAID launched the Fisheries Integration of Society and Habitats project, or FISH. Implemented by Pact and its partners, FISH is increasing social, ecological and economic resilience to climate change and improving biodiversity conservation through sustainable fisheries co-management across all major lakes in the country.
One of FISH’s main efforts has been helping communities to establish Local Fisheries Management Authorities, or LFMAs, building their capacity to create lasting change in the management of Malawi’s fisheries. FISH has now helped Malawians to set up nearly 200 LFMAs, teaching the groups about the country’s six steps of fisheries co-management.
Following these steps, LFMAs in the communities of Zomba and Machinga, which touch Lake Chilwa, assessed their resources. They quickly realized that Lake Chilwa had just begun to be replenished with water, and that fish stocks were still rebuilding. While the lake is usually closed for fishing from December to February, the LFMAs decided on Feb. 28 that it would be their communities’ best interest to extend the closed season by a full year, until March 2019, in order to increase fish stocks and ensure sustainable harvests for the future.
LFMA members called for a meeting with Department of Fisheries officials to justify their decision, and it was quickly formalized.
The FISH project has also built LFMAs’ expertise in establishing and managing fish sanctuaries, restoring habitat, networking with other community groups such as Village Natural Resources Management committees, and reducing the use of illegal fishing gear across lakes Malawi, Chiuta, Malombe and Chilwa. And the project has been working with local government and fishing communities to develop local bylaws that regulate fishing, safeguard natural resources and vest LFMAs with power to enforce the bylaws.
LFMAs includes Beach Village Committee members, Fisheries Association members and traditional leader representatives within an ecosystem.
The Zomba and Machinga LFMAs are also planning to conduct awareness meetings in communities along Lake Chilwa, and to intensify patrols on the lake. The first patrol was conducted the day of the extension meeting. During the patrol, six illegal pieces of gear were confiscated and handed over to the Department of Fisheries, mostly mosquito nets, which capture young fish and negatively impact the ecosystem. During the closed season, only long lines and gill nets with a minimum mesh size of 2.5 inches are allowed, ensuring that only more mature fish are caught.
“As fishers, we have seen that the lake has just started filling up and the fish stocks are still small,” says fisherman Anderson Thembwa. “We need to give the growing fish time to grow before we catch, and this will allow us to catch more, thereby making more money when the lake opens after one year.
“The fish in Lake Chilwa belong to the people around the lake, and the idea about closing the lake comes from us because we are the ones who will benefit when the fish stocks recover. We have extended the closed season because we know and realize we need to take ownership of the lake.”
The Fisheries Integration of Society and Habitats project, or FISH, is funded by USAID. It is implemented by Pact and a consortium of partners including the University of Rhodes Island Costal Resources Center, Christian Aid, Wildlife and Environmental Society of Malawi, Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy, Community Initiative for Self-Reliance, Lilongwe University of Agriculture & Natural Resources, and Emanuel International.