Chambo is an important fish to Malawi's economy and to the livelihoods of local people in the southern end of Lake Malawi. Overexploitation of the chambo has been a source of concern since the 1930s. The biological and economic collapse of the fishery in Lake Malombe and the Upper Shire River in the early 1990s, and growing evidence in recent years of its decline in the Southeast Arm of Lake Malawi (the major productive area for the species) have galvanised the Government of Malawi into making an attempt to restore the chambo to former levels of production.

This paper argues that while the proposed solutions for restoring the chambo might be well intentioned, they nevertheless ignore existing knowledge and scholarship about fisheries management in African freshwater lakes gathered over the last six decades. A body of knowledge on the biological and scientific basis for regulating the chambo already exists. The missing link is an understanding and appreciation of the social, economic, political and institutional drivers on exploitation patterns of the chambo. Future management solutions must be based on the collective concerns of all potential users. More specifically, such solutions should be cognisant of local knowledge, fishers' experiences and the way they view and define their problems. If these are disregarded, finding solutions to the enormous challenge of restoring chambo stocks to their former status will be as difficult as grappling in the dark.

Introduction

Following the decline of chambo (local name for three closely related species of tilapine cichlids (namely Oreochromis squamipinnis, Oreochromis lidole and Oreochromis karongae)1 stocks (Figure 1) in Malawi's southern aquatic system (Southeast Arm of Lake Malawi, the Upper Shire River and Lake Malombe; Figure 2)2 the Government of Malawi's Fisheries Department launched the National Save the Chambo Campaign in January 2003. This resulted in the formulation of the Chambo Restoration Strategic Plan (Banda et al., 2005). The main reasons for the decline of the chambo are thought to be the open access regime, illegal fishing methods, destruction of habitats, failure to enforce regulations, lack of involvement of users in decision-making and lack of taxation on use of the resource. The Chambo Restoration Strategic Plan (CRSP) aims to restore the chambo in the southern aquatic system to its peak productive capacity of 6000 to 8000 tonnes (Figure 1) annually, and to produce an additional 7000 tonnes annually from aquaculture (including lake cage culture systems) by 2015.

Figure 1.

Estimated total production from Malawi's southern aquatic system.

Figure 1.

Estimated total production from Malawi's southern aquatic system.

Figure 2.

Malawi's Southern Aquatic System (the South-East Arm, Upper Shire River and Lake Malombe)

Figure 2.

Malawi's Southern Aquatic System (the South-East Arm, Upper Shire River and Lake Malombe)

The strategic plan proposes to restore the chambo through decentralisation of management (community co-management); creation of exclusive fishing zones (territorial fishing rights); establishment of sanctuaries to protect the breeding chambo; building artificial reefs and brushpaks where the chambo can take refuge; restocking and production enhancement; development of enabling policies and legislation; tax reforms involving payment of resource rent; fiscal incentives for investment in commercial aquaculture; development of alternative livelihoods; and political mobilisation.

Numerous research projects and reports have been conducted on chambo stocks since the 1940s. Relevant studies or reports on the chambo fishery include: Trewavas (1942); Lowe (1952); Williamson's (1966) assessment of the data for the years 1946-1966, Tarbit's assessment for the years 1969 to 1973, the UNDP/FAO stock assessment done in 1972 to 1976, Chaika (Fisheries Department, Monkey Bay, Malawi, unpublished, 1980) on problems of artisanal fisheries management on the South-East Arm, Mkoko (Fisheries Department, Monkey Bay, Malawi, unpublished, 1981) on the status of chambo fishery on the Southeast Arm; Malawi Government/ODA artisanal fisheries assessment project (1989); and the Chambo Fisheries Management Project (Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations—FAO, 1993). Despite3 these studies, chambo stocks declined after production peaked in the 1980s (Figure 1). Even the introduction of participatory management in Lake Malombe and the Upper Shire River in 1993 could not prevent the collapse of chambo in these areas.4 Estimated catch had declined from over 8000 tons in 1982 to about 100 tons in 1997 from Lake Malombe and from about 1200 tons in 1981 to about 0.2 tons in 1997 from the Upper Shire River.

The concern is that the solutions being proposed for restoring the chambo stocks do not adequately consider the reasons for previous failures of the chambo management regime and ignore existing knowledge and insights about management of fisheries in Africa's freshwater lakes. Biological research and scholarship since Lowe (1952) have done little to advance our knowledge of why previous management regimes might not have worked. More importantly, the proposed solutions are yet again not informed by the views, experiences and knowledge of the fishers. Aside from the biological and technical solutions, there is need for critical analysis of the social, economic, cultural and institutional factors underlying the exploitation patterns. This has been the missing link in the past. Although the Chambo Restoration Planning Workshop Report alludes to this by observing that ‘. . . a multi-disciplinary approach that puts people utilising the resource at the centre of all planned activities was needed if the chambo fishery is to be successfully restored’ (Banda et al., 2005), the fishers were conspicuous by their absence at the planning workshop. It is also crucial to investigate whether the proposed solutions are applicable and acceptable to fishers, given their perspective on their problems. As Ferguson et al. (1993) pointed out, ‘a survey of the social science literature on African lakes revealed that few investigations of fishing communities existed’ and that ‘fish had been better studied and funded than studies on the fishing peoples’. It is critical to learn from past mistakes and plug the holes in our knowledge, otherwise we will end up repeating old mistakes.

Materials and methods

This paper uses material from my Ph.D. research that took place from 1997 to 2001 (Hara, 2001a), conducted using both structured and unstructured interviews. In total, over eighty fishers (gear owners and crew members), fisheries department officials and other stakeholders were interviewed in the four-year period. I also use relevant literature and scholarship on fisheries management in Malawi's southern aquatic system and Africa's freshwater lakes, and unpublished Fisheries reports from both the Fisheries Department and the National Archives. Finally, my extensive knowledge of the fisheries of the area gathered over the six years between 1990 and 1996 when I worked as Fisheries Officer for Mangochi District, the administrative area where the southern aquatic system occurs is used.

The next section of this article reviews the relevant research and scholarship on fisheries management in African freshwater lakes. Next, the management of the chambo in Malawi's southern aquatic system is analysed. The final section discusses the probable reasons for past management failures and provides recommendations for the resolution of problems, followed by a conclusion.

Fisheries management in Africa's freshwater lakes

Biological and ecological investigations in Africa's freshwater lakes have been on-going since the middle of the last century. According to Allison (2002), the process of science has influenced how environmental problems in Africa's Great Lakes are ‘framed’, which then determines what kind of ‘solutions’ are recommended. In most instances these processes have not involved fishers (Ferguson et al., 1993). Despite rhetoric about the need for economic and social considerations in fisheries management and the new discourse of participatory research, local management and use of indigenous knowledge in recent years, there has been little impact on how authorities organise their fisheries services, how the services are staffed or what sort of data they collect (Ellis and Kutengule, 2003; Hara, 2001a; Ferguson et al., 1993). It is important to take advantage of fishers' socio-ecological knowledge as this has implications for the distribution of benefits, the processes of class formation and the ecological health of the aquatic systems on which they depend (Jul-Larsen et al., 2003).

Understanding the constant, dynamic changes in fishing effort in Africa's freshwater lakes requires a larger social and macro-economic context. Jul-Larsen et al. (2003) introduced two important concepts: ‘population driven’ growth (Increase in effort due to increase in number of participants in the fishery)5 versus ‘investment driven’ growth6 (Increase in effort due to increase in capitalisation of the fishery or improvements in technology) in fishing effort, and ‘geographical and occupational mobility’. The authors argue that in the case of the southern African freshwater lakes, ‘population driven’ increase in fishing effort rarely results in collapse of stocks; rather, it is ‘investment driven’ fishing effort that causes the decline. People's flexible adaptation to the ecological and economic environment through frequent entries and exits is central to understanding the importance of these systems as ‘buffer’ and ‘safety valve’ mechanisms for local populations. This is especially so with regard to occupational mobility as a livelihood adaptation (Cunningham and Neiland, 2005; Bene, 2004; Allison and Ellis, 2001). The issue of mobility highlights the fact that the need to diversify livelihood strategies makes it rare to find communities supported purely by fishing (Allison and Ellis, 2001; Sarch and Allison, 2000; Pollnac, 1991). So who is a fisher and who should be granted fishing rights? The rich fishing grounds in southern Malawi attract many ethnic and functional groups from other parts of Malawi. As a result, a diverse assortment of short- and long-term residents populate fishing communities in the area (Hara, 2001a; Chirwa, 1995; Kapeleta, 1973).

Experience with co-management initiatives has not, thus far, been very encouraging in Southern Africa. Most arrangements have tended to exclude users from decision-making and from influencing who should participate in designing operational rules for fisheries management (Hara and Nielsen, 2003; Sverdrup-Jensen and Nielsen, 1998). Governments remain firmly in control and the users' ability to negotiate remains weak (Hara, 2001a; Donda, 2001; Chirwa, 1997). Co-management should ensure genuine local participation (Raakjær Nielsen et al., 2004; Hara and Nielsen, 2003). Using co-management as a tool for allocating access rights might prevent the aquatic systems from remaining ‘commons’ and ‘safety valves’ for adaptable livelihood strategies (Cunningham and Neiland, 2005; Jul Larsen et al., 2003; Allison and Ellis, 2001; Sarch and Allison, 2000).

The preceding review serves to remind us that an uncritical approach to fisheries management can lead to poor assessment and definition of problems, resulting in solutions that disregard existing knowledge or involvement of the beneficiaries (Rogers and Biggs, 1999). Such a management approach is likely to lack direction and purpose, and might just become ‘highly reactive to the never-ending array of surprises that nature, economic forces and social adjustments come up with’. Allison (2002) warns that ‘orthodox explanations for the root causes of environmental degradation should be thought of as untested hypotheses, rather than validated assumptions’. ‘… there is need for critical analysis of widely-held assumptions about the causes of, and potential solutions to environmental change in Africa’.

Management of chambo in the southern aquatic system

This section reviews the scientific basis of management techniques that have been used, as well as experience with implementation of the chambo management regime in the southern aquatic system. The major landmarks are the work by Rosemary Lowe in the 1940s, attempts to enforce regulations in the 1970s and 1980s, the Chambo Fisheries Management Project from 1988 to 1992, and the Participatory Fisheries Management Programme (PFMP) in Lake Malombe and the Upper Shire River from 1993 onwards.

Lowe's work — The foundation for the scientifically derived management measures

The first real scientific basis for deriving fisheries management measures for the Southeast Arm was the research and survey by Lowe from 1945 to 1947 (Lowe, 1952). Most of her recommendations remain the basis of the scientific knowledge and regulations in the southern aquatic system. The background to the colonial government's commissioning of the surveys was concern that the chambo was being overexploited. Lowe's recommendations led to the enactment of the 1949 Fisheries Ordinance by the Governing Council, three years before her report was published.

Lowe used samples, data and information from fishermen and material that had been collected by Trewavas and her team (Trewavas, 1942)7 in order to study the systematics, breeding, growth and life histories of the chambo. She also examined the effects of fishing on the chambo. In her preamble, Lowe (1952) stated that ‘a rational fishery is one in which the best yield may be cropped each year over an indefinite period (i.e., the principle of MSY)’. She noted that ‘the Tilapia were vital to the whole economy of the lakeshore and that their loss would have constituted a real disaster for Nyasaland. Drastic steps needed to be taken to guard against such a happening’ (Trewavas, 1942).

Lowe's evidence indicated the following: firstly, that there were three key species of chambo on the Southeast Arm, namely Tilapia squamipinnis, T. saka and T. lidole. Secondly, that the Tilapia took three years to reach breeding maturity, implying that each fish needed to be protected for three years before it could be caught. Thirdly, that the Tilapia bred only once a year and that sizes at maturity were found to be different for each of the three species. In addition, the Tilapia mouth-brood the young, meaning that whole broods could be destroyed if the parents were caught at this vulnerable stage. T. squamipinnis and T. saka were found to have a more inshore habitat while T. lidole were more offshore. At the time of her survey, there was evidence that the two inshore species were over-fished while lidole had remained relatively unexploited. In her opinion, this could have been owing to a combination of factors including changing lake levels or heavy fishing pressure. She recommended the following measures:

  1. A minimum size at which fish could be taken; and mesh size regulations.

    • Since the different species bred at lengths varying from 23 to 28 cm, no fish smaller than 26 cm should be taken, in order to protect the immature chambo (locally called ‘kasawala’ or ‘zeya’).

    • A minimum mesh size of four inches diagonal stretch should be used to obtain the 26 cm size.

  2. Protection of the fish in the breeding (spawning and brooding) grounds.

    • Prohibiting fishing in certain areas, either totally or only during in the breeding season.

    • Prohibiting fishing in the breeding seasons through the introduction of a closed season.

  3. Controlling the quantity of fish and/or the intensity of fishing each year, including the curtailment of large-scale fishing and the use of more efficient gears such as ring nets.

Lowe's work culminated in the first fisheries legislation in Malawi—the 1949 Fisheries Ordinance (Government of Nyasaland, 1949). The years between 1949 and the country's political independence in 1964 were marked by political instability, which had a negative impact on the implementation of the regulations. An independent Malawi re-enacted a new Fisheries Act in 1973 (Government of Malawi, 1973), leading to the establishment of the Department of Fisheries in 1974.8 The 1973 Act outlined general restrictions, prohibited fishing methods, and the penalties for offences. Most of these were technical regulations based on the standard management techniques for indirect regulation of effort, as recommended by Lowe (1952), and can be grouped into three categories: minimum mesh size for gillnets and seine nets; maximum headline length and depth restrictions for the seine nets; and closed season for chambo seine nets. The assumption was that a combination of all these technical restrictions would achieve biologically sustainable exploitation of the chambo stocks without regulating output or fishing intensity.

Implementation of the chambo management regime — The 1970s/80s enforcement agitations

Although all the regulations have been largely ignored, the closed season9 regulation, which is meant to protect chambo and young during the breeding, spawning and brooding season, has been the most problematic (Banda et al., 2005; FAO, 1993). Lowe (1952) foresaw this problem when she stated that ‘one of the peculiar features of the Tilapia fishery in southern Lake Malawi is that the main fishing season is also the main spawning and brooding season’.

The 1970s and 1980s saw accelerated investment in improved equipment like nylon nets, plank boats and outboard motor engines, resulting in commercialisation of the fishery (Hara and Jul Larsen, 2003; Hara, 2001a). This in turn led to increased disdain for the regulations among fisherfolk10 (gear owners and their crew members, helpers, traders and other beneficiaries) and, inevitably, conflict with fisheries inspectors. Numerous incidents of closed season violations were recorded by the Fisheries Department. For example: Mijere (1977) reported such incidents during the 1976 closed season; Ng'ombe (1981) reported rampant violations during the 1980/81 closed season, which resulted in several fishermen from Mponda, Madina and Mtundu beaches being arrested; and Alimoso (1984) recorded that 18 fishermen were arrested, prosecuted, convicted and sentenced to imprisonment ranging from 3 to 6 months in the 1983 closed season. In the summation, the Magistrate noted that imprisonment without the option of a fine was intended to be a deterrent as fines had proved ineffective in previous years. One of the magistrates of the day (by the name of Mbingwa) even ordered burning of the confiscated nets in the early 1980s in addition to imprisonment (C. Dissi, Fisheries Department, Lilongwe, Malawi, pers. comm.). To discourage trade in fish caught illegally during the closed season (locally called ‘Magweta’), traders found with such fish were also arrested, prosecuted and the fish confiscated. Despite intensification of enforcement activities and convictions, the illegal fishing continued.

By the mid-1980s, fishermen began to resist arrest and generally became aggressive towards the enforcement agents. Stone-throwing and other forms of physical violence occurred at Chipalamawamba on 17 and 29 November 1984, when inspectors attempted to confiscate seine nets found in use (Donda, 1984). Dissi (1984) also reported similar incidents at several beaches (Madina beach on 25 November 1982, Chipalamawamba on 28 January 1983, Dimu on 5 December 1983 and Mponda on 12 Dec 1983). The Fisheries Department was alarmed by this serious situation. Unable to deal adequately with increasing lawlessness on its own (Donda, 1987; M. Nyirenda, Fisheries Department, Lilongwe, Malawi, pers. comm.), it appealed for assistance from the District Development Committee (DDC), the Police and the Malawi Congress Party (MPC).11 As a result, the issue increasingly formed part of the DDC agenda in its meetings. Public meetings, to raise awareness about importance of the closed season, were conducted in the troubled areas by MCP officials while the Police provided direct assistance to the fisheries inspectorate. Despite the involvement of the DDC, MCP and the Police, infringement of the closed season continued. A pattern slowly emerged: as far as the fishermen were concerned, the commercial stakes were high enough to ignore the regulations and resist arrest and/or confiscation of their equipment. By the 1988 closed season, the fisherfolk were openly challenging the inspection team. For example, on 21 November 1988, the inspection team failed to seize nets found in operation at Mponda or to arrest anyone (Jumpha, 1988). On 23 November 1988 and in December 1988, the team found ten beach seines in operation at Mponda and Malunda beaches, with more than 500 fisherfolk in attendance. On attempting to seize the nets, the team was attacked and had to abort the operation (Jumpha, 1988).

These failures to carry through decisive action were both embarrassing and demoralising for the inspectorate. Anxious to do something about this growing disregard for the closed season, it was decided to solicit the assistance of the Police Mobile Force (PMF).12 Having been briefed about the existing situation, the PMF decided to hand out punitive action to the fisherfolk as a lesson. Thus, in the first patrol to the two most problematic beaches, Mponda and Malunda, they did not wait to be attacked before reacting. The PMF squad simply acted in a ‘heavy handed’ manner, chasing and roughing-up anyone who could not get away, whether they were fishers, traders or bystanders (Jumpha, 1988). Nets, boats and fish were seized and ten fishers and seven traders were arrested, prosecuted and fined. The use of the PMF as back-up succeeded until the 18 of January 1989 when the team attempted to confiscate nets at Mbaluku. The fisherfolk attacked the team with stones, oars and other weapons. It was only after the team fired several warning shots in the air that the fishers backed off (Jumpha, 1988). Two police officers and one inspector were seriously wounded. The PMF's approach had only served to inflame the situation. After this incident, the police withdrew their active support and the PMF was never used again.

These conflicts and incidents of violence occurred at the height of MCP's autocratic rule. A defining feature of MCP's rule was the power that the party wielded over the populace. The local branches of the MCP Youth League could be counted upon to help enforce government regulations. The general impact of this usually effective approach was minimal, if not a total failure, when it came to dealing with chambo seine net closed season. Three possible reasons can be advanced for the failure of MCP and its Youth League: 1) corruption among the officials since they benefited from these illegal activities; 2) fear of reprisals from fisherfolk they shared villages with; and 3) the MCP genuinely tried to assist bringing order but failed just like the government agents. According to C. Dissi, M. Nyirenda and S. Donda (Fisheries Department, Lilongwe, Malawi, pers. comm.) the first of these contributing factors was the most significant: the majority of MCP officials and MCP Youth League members had some self-interest in the fishery. Thus, while their official rhetoric was in line with the government campaign, they were simultaneously colluding with fishers to undermine the very regime that they were supposed to help prop up.

The 1988—92 Chambo Fishery Management Project: Re-inventing the wheel?

Four decades after Lowe's pioneering work, another research project that ran from 1988 to 1992 was commissioned, with the objective of establishing a suitable management strategy for the chambo in the Southeast Arm of Lakes Malawi, the Upper Shire River and Lake Malombe (FAO, 1993). The justification for the project rested on the assumption that ‘the Southeast Arm was the last major chambo fishing ground remaining in Malawi, the stocks in Lake Malombe, the Southwest Arm and the Upper Shire River having collapsed’ (FAO, 1993). Just like Lowe earlier on, the research focused on investigating the biology, taxonomy and stock assessment of the three main species of the chambo.13 By this time, it had been realised though that the multi-species character of the fishery warranted taking into account the other major stocks involved. An attempt was also made to look at the socio-economic aspects of the exploitation of the chambo.

Most of the findings on the biology of the chambo merely confirmed what Lowe (1952) and Trewavas (1942) had found earlier; that the average size at breeding maturity for the three species was about 27.5 cm (Lowe had put the range between 23–28 cm giving an average of 25.3 cm); that the chambo were mouth brooders that release their young in the shallow waters; that the main breeding season is between September and December but that the fish continue to breed until March/April (Lowe had indicated that the chambo bred at different times and in different places and suggested November to December as the peak breeding season); and that there was evidence of seasonal migration through the Upper Shire to Lake Malombe. While Lowe thought that lidole species did not visit Lake Malombe, the 1988–1992 project reported finding spent females of lidole in Lake Malombe even though the adults seemed to be rare south of Boadzulu Island (Figure 1). While there seemed to be seasonal migration to Lake Malombe by the lidole, what confounded this finding was that no return migration of immature fish (lidole) to Lake Malawi had been observed (FAO, 1993). The project reported that the closed season had generally been ignored and that fishing during the closed season was 131% higher than in the open season, a fear Lowe (1952) had alluded to. Like Lowe, the project estimated that the stocks were fully exploited but not overexploited. In terms of classification, the report informed that the chambo was now placed in the subgenus Nyasalapia of the genus Oreochromis by Trewavas (1983) and also that what had been believed to be a different species of Oreochromis saka during Lowe's work was now regarded as a variant of Oreochromis karongae (Turner and Robinson, 1990). It was admitted that ‘questions of the taxonomy of this complex group had not been resolved’ (FAO, 1993).

Why were all these resources and time spent on repeating work that had been done forty years before? Was this research of any real value for management purposes or was it just re-inventing the wheel? Considering the difficulties associated with the implementation and enforcement of the regulations in the 1970s and 1980s, it could have been more useful to investigate the problems of the chambo management regime during the two preceding decades.

The Participatory Fisheries Management Programme

By the end of the FAO (1993) project, there had been a management paradigm shift towards ‘user involvement’. In line with this shift, the Fisheries Department launched a pilot project for user participation in Lake Malombe and the Upper Shire River in 1993 called the ‘Participatory Fisheries Management Programme (PFMP)’. While the immediate objective of the PFMP was to redress the collapse of the chambo fishery and the continuing decline of the fisheries of the two water bodies, it was hoped that should the approach be successful, it could be extended to other areas such as the Southeast Arm (Fisheries Department, 1993). After more than a decade of the PFMP, the regime has not achieved its intended goals of recovery of the chambo fishery or arrested the decline of the other species, let alone institutionalising community co-management (Hara, 2005; Hara et al., 2002). The failure could be related to the inapplicability of the assumptions underlying the theory and practice of community co-management in specific contexts such as Lake Malombe and the Upper Shire River. Some of these are the homogeneity of community; user group democracy in election of representatives and in decision-making; introducing limited access; and territorial use rights (Hara, 2005). There are also other issues such as the socio-economic relations of production within the fishing units and communities; the manipulative effects of the Fisheries Department's facilitatory role in the introduction of the regime; and differences in objectives for the community co-management regime.

Using the past to inform the future

Although over-exploitation of chambo has been a source of concern since the 1930s when the first survey was commissioned by the colonial government, the estimated catch figures for the last two decades validate the current urgency for action. However, reasons for the over-exploitation of the chambo and solutions being flaunted now are similar to those suggested by Lowe in the 1940s and reiterated since then. Why is it that these recommendations and attendant management regimes have not borne positive results?

Fishing: A business, socio-economic and livelihood activity

Fishing is not only a business, but also a socio-economic and livelihood activity. Terms such as traditional (implying non-modern and non-commercial in orientation) as used by the Fisheries Department are of little analytical value and can be profoundly misleading, as they do not adequately characterise fishers or the nature of their operations (Ferguson et al., 1993). Gear owners are entrepreneurs who invest in fishing as a business for generating profit. Many of these entrepreneurs run successful small-scale commercial fishing businesses, landing over 90% of the catch. They establish these businesses without any assistance from government or other institutions such as commercial banks. Formal institutions therefore have little leverage on their activities or investment decisions. The fishing units provide livelihoods and income for crew members, gang members and casual helpers. For most men, the beach is usually the focal point for social meetings, debates about current events and so on. While at the beach, they help to repair nets and operate seine nets—activities that earn them some income or fish to take home. Other business activities such as shops within fishing villages thrive on income from fishing. Directly or indirectly, the majority of people benefit from the fishing activities within their villages, implying that they owe allegiance to the gear owner. This is why people ‘defended’ the chambo seine nets against confiscation by government enforcement agents in the 1980s.

The investment decisions of gear owners and the ingenuity of their crew members regarding technical innovations are crucial to understanding the dynamic changes in fishing effort in the chambo fishery. For example, the number of chambo seine nets on the Southeast Arm increased by 142% (from 26 to 63) between 1981 and 1985 (Table 1). Most of these nets were over a kilometre long, requiring over seven hours of operation for a single throw. After 1988, there was a steady decline in the number of chambo seine nets and by 1999 there were only 19 left (Table 1). Similar trends in growth and decline were recorded in Lake Malombe and the Upper Shire River (Hara and Jul-Larsen, 2003). Analyses show that by the mid-1990s over 95% of the chambo seine nets had either been retired or converted to other gear types, or had migrated from Lake Malombe and the Upper Shire River (Hara and Jul-Larsen, 2003). In the entire southern aquatic system, the decline in numbers of chambo seine nets was due to declining Catch per Unit of Effort (CPUE) for the gear. As the profitability of the chambo seine nets in the Southeast Arm declined, fishers switched to other gears such as chilimira nets or gill nets. Fishers used the chilimira to catch the chambo off shore by light attraction (locally, this method is called kauni), a technique that was more profitable and consequently more popular than beach seine nets.14 Traditionally, the chilimira is used for catching utaka and usipa. Thus, the number of chilimira nets on the Southeast Arm increased from 352 in 1991 to 689 by 1998 (by 95%) as investors switched to kauni, utaka (Copadichromis spp.) and usipa (Sardinella ssp.) fishing (Table 1). Similarly, the decline in the profitability of the chambo and kambuzi seine net in Lake Malombe resulted in the invention of the nkacha net towards the end of the 1980s; a gear that was developed to target the still abundant offshore kambuzi (demersal haplochromines). For a number of years the Fisheries Department recorded the chambo from kauni as a by-catch of usipa under the chilimira net before it came to light that this was a new technique for catching the chambo. Similarly, kambuzi from the nkacha in Lake Malombe was recorded under kambuzi seine net for a number of years before the nkacha was recognised as a different gear type and fishing technique.

Table 1.

Number of chambo seine nets, chilimira nets, gear owners and assistants on the Southeast Arm.

Number of gears countedNumber of fishers counted
YearChambo seines netsChilimira netsGear ownersAssistants
1981 26 222 1015 2996 
1982a     
1983 29 143 1170 3585 
1984 53 338 1105 4209 
1985 63 319 976 4377 
1986 55 350 980 4780 
1987a     
1988 61 380 837 5379 
1989 56 314 829 5783 
1990 52 354 935 6371 
1991 53 352 867 6107 
1992 43 381 1070 7025 
1993 44 404 1101 7329 
1994 32 475 1226 8062 
1995 22 465 1290 8027 
1996 25 512 1153 8268 
1997a 36 577 1327 10058 
1998b 25 689 1337 9059 
1999 19 542 1268 8686 
Number of gears countedNumber of fishers counted
YearChambo seines netsChilimira netsGear ownersAssistants
1981 26 222 1015 2996 
1982a     
1983 29 143 1170 3585 
1984 53 338 1105 4209 
1985 63 319 976 4377 
1986 55 350 980 4780 
1987a     
1988 61 380 837 5379 
1989 56 314 829 5783 
1990 52 354 935 6371 
1991 53 352 867 6107 
1992 43 381 1070 7025 
1993 44 404 1101 7329 
1994 32 475 1226 8062 
1995 22 465 1290 8027 
1996 25 512 1153 8268 
1997a 36 577 1327 10058 
1998b 25 689 1337 9059 
1999 19 542 1268 8686 

adata for 1982, 1987 and 1997 not available.

bdata on number of gear owners and assistants for 1998 not available.

Source: Department of Fisheries, Lilongwe.

As in the past, the Fisheries Department had lagged behind in recording the innovations and the technological developments being instituted by the fishers responding to a changing resource situation, intuitive technical innovations required to meet this change, and the necessary business investment decisions. In both cases (the chilimira for chambo using kauni and the nkacha for kambuzi earlier on) the fishing gears/techniques were not even on the statutes so that even if they were deemed illegal, the Fisheries Department could not act against fishers using them. As in the case of Lake Malombe, the ‘investment driven’ growth in effort has been the major cause of declining chambo stocks in the Southeast Arm, rather than ‘population driven’ effort increase.

Intra-community investment

The collapse of the chambo fishery in Malombe was not caused by the unlimited access of many fishers (‘population driven’ effort growth), but by competition among the few who could afford to invest in more capital-intensive gears (chambo seine nets initially and then nkacha nets). It is likely that the former chambo seine net gear owners are the ones who have been investing in chilimira nets on the Southeast Arm, having disinvested from the former as the profitability of those nets declined. This is evident from the longitudinal surveys of the number of gear owners in the Southeast Arm. The number increased only by 13.6% (from 1015 in 1981 to 1153 in 1996) in sixteen years, compared to the 56.6% increase in chilimira nets in the same period (Table 1).15 There was a twofold increase in the number of crew members (2996 to 8268) in chilimira units in the same period.

Therefore, in order to control fishing effort, there is need to curb large-scale capital investments. The problem however is that the majority of investors are powerful individuals from within the communities. Well-considered and timely interventions would be required by decision-makers (government in collaboration with fishing communities) to avoid the build-up of technology to the detriment of the fish resource in the area.

Mobility and livelihood diversification

Mobility (both occupational and geographic) as a livelihood strategy is important for understanding the role of fishing in people's lives. Close links have always existed between fishing, farming and migrant labour in the area (Jul-Larsen and Semu, 1997; Chirwa, 1995; Ferguson et al., 1993; McCraken, 1987; Mandala, 1990). Apart from fishing, almost everyone in rural areas works the land to grow food crops for household needs and to generate some income from the surplus. Historically, people from Mangochi have migrated to work in other countries in southern Africa. This was the major source capital for investment into fishing and other economic activities (Hara and Jul-Larsen, 2003; Chirwa, 1995). There is also a thriving informal trading sector in the area. The investment that goes into the fishery is mostly generated through migrant labour or informal trading (Hara and Jul-Larsen, 2003). With good knowledge of the local economic dynamics, the prevailing availability and profitability of fish, and the profitability of farming (especially tobacco), entrepreneurs constantly switch from or diversify investment among various economic activities.

Factors influencing attitudes towards regulations and non-compliance

Factors that affect compliance decisions are generally very complex. Apart from weighing private economic benefits, compliance may also depend on the degree to which the regulations are considered fair and just; social pressure, and feelings of obligation (Raakjær Nielsen, 2003; Hatcher et al., 2000; Young, 1979; Sutinen et al., 1990). In addition, compliance depends on the extent to which fishers are willing to accept regulations as being legitimate (Jentoft, 1989). Legitimacy is related to the ‘content and quality’ of the regulations and the process used for formulating the regulations. The situation in the area is paradoxical. Generally, fishermen accept the regulations as being just and fair (Hara, 2001a). Content and quality might therefore not be the real problem. Since the regulations have usually been formulated and imposed without the participation of fishers, the issue of ‘procedural legitimacy’ could be important, especially as most fishers feel that they have no obligations towards observing Fisheries Department's regulations (Hara, 2001a). Thus, non-compliance has been influenced by lack of procedural legitimacy, the drive for profits and the lack of obligation towards the regulations on the part of fishers. It is in this context that the problems of enforcing the regulations in the area as experienced in the 1970s and 1980s could be interpreted.

Community co-management and territorial rights

Among the proposals under the CRSP, two pertain to strengthening community co-management and the introduction of property rights based on territorial integrity (Banda et al., 2005). Community co-management assumes that the community as a group of individuals or families with fishing-based livelihoods can be effectively defined (Allison and Ellis, 2001). ‘Community’ as a homogenous entity is regarded as critical for viable institutions necessary for collaborative resource management (Agrawal and Gibson, 1999; Baland and Platteau, 1996; Singleton and Taylor, 1992; Ostrom, 1990). The assumption is that if communities are involved in conservation, the benefits they receive will create incentives for them to become good stewards of the resource (Garcia et al, 1999). The characteristics presumed to provide favourable conditions for community based co-management in Lake Malombe were that the people are largely one ethnic group (the Yao), mainly Moslem, mainly one functional group (the nkacha net) and all operated in one small water body (Hara, 2001a; Bell and Donda, 1993). Agrawal and Gibson (1999) argue that outwardly homogenous communities are often riven with differences in status, wealth, power and political influence that make implied coincidence of interests and goals dubious. In an area such as the Southeast Arm with multiple gear types, a variety of ethnic groups and different sectors (commercial, semi-commercial and artisanal), assumptions of shared norms and coincidence of interests need to be validated before any practical attempts to decentralise resource management.

In some inshore fisheries, especially in Southeast Asia, local controls based on an approach called Territorial Use Rights Fisheries (TURF) are used as a management tool (Ruddle et al., 1992; Hviding and Jul-Larsen, 1995). TURF is based on the assumption that physical boundaries are clearly defined, that fishery resources are sedentary and fishing gears are passive. Under Malawi's Customary Law, traditional leaders have jurisdiction over their land and beaches.16 The village headman's traditional authority does not extend beyond land and is not therefore recognised out on the lake. This authority resides with government. Under the revised act of 1997 (Government of Malawi, 1997), such authority can be delegated to local management bodies. The question is whether such customary law can be used to introduce a TURF system. Most gears used in the area are not passive and the species being targeted are not sedentary. As a result, fishers migrate seasonally (or whenever necessary) in pursuit of good catches. If the TURF system were to work, fishers would have to be restricted to launch and land at specified beaches in their allocated areas (Hara, 2005). Such a system could only work if it applied to all areas within the range where fishermen can land. A similar system in the 1950s on the Southeast Arm under the ‘indirect rule act’ ended in failure because fishermen simply avoided landing at beaches where such measures were being stringently enforced (Chirwa, 1995; McCraken, 1987).

If community co-management and territorial property rights are to be of any value to management, a deeper and better understanding of the physical boundaries, exploitation patterns and geographic mobility is a pre-requisite. Another important question is whether these approaches could improve procedural legitimacy, control investments and increase the fishers' feelings of obligation towards regulations.

Use of technical regulations

Parsons (1995) points out that although time restrictions, area closures and mesh size restrictions can be useful conservation measures, they are generally less useful as primary methods of management and are not likely to meet either biological or economic objectives of a fishery by themselves. For example, closures (closed seasons and closed areas) force fishermen to fish on less productive grounds and restrict the way investments can be used, thus increasing fishing costs (Anderson, 1986). The use of technical regulations in the southern aquatic system was therefore always going to be problematic. Output regulations have never been used even though Lowe (1952) recommended these. For one thing, the developmentalist approach has looked at fishing as a source of protein, income and employment for the nation and has encouraged increased exploitation (Hara, 2001a; Ferguson et al., 1993). In any case, organisation of fishing activities, whereby fishers can fish and land anywhere, precludes the practicality of output regulations.

Enhancement technologies and aquaculture

Despite millions of dollars and numerous development projects in the last forty years, aquaculture's contribution to fish production in Malawi remains insignificant (Hara, 2001b). The underlying problems relate to poor adoption of technologies, unsustainability of initiatives, and the targeting of rural resource-poor farmers as target beneficiaries (FAO, 1995; Coche et al., 1994; Brummett and Noble, 1995; FAO, 1996; Martinez-Espinosa, 1996). The current proposal is for the development of commercial aquaculture, especially with chambo as the candidate species. Bell and Jamu (2005) point out that the technical challenges for chambo enhancement technologies are formidable as the species is characterised by late maturity, low fecundity and extended parental care. In addition, protection of the genetic purity of the indigenous species from the modified varieties would be essential. Finally, without proper guidelines on environmental management and Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs), the effects of restocking and cage culture in the lake pose great risks to indigenous fish stocks, the environment and human beings who use the southern aquatic system for domestic and recreational purposes.

A further important consideration should be whether fishers and other stakeholders would find lake cages acceptable, as this will mean privatising increasing amounts of lake space. In an area where fishers have already lost large areas of fishing and landing beaches to the physical developments of private hotels and cottages, the loss of more space out in the lake might be unacceptable. The security of private fish in cages in the lake could also be an issue since people might vandalise the cages, both in an effort to get to the fish and as protest against such installations.

Conclusion—We should not let the past mistakes come back to haunt us

Adequate biological and ecological knowledge exists for management of the chambo stocks in Malawi's southern aquatic system. What is required is better understanding of the dynamics of investment and how these influence the different types of fishing effort; factors that influence fisher non-compliance; economic and social organisation of fishing units and how these influence behaviour; and improving the procedural legitimacy of the policy and regulation formulation processes. Fishers are aware of the demise of the chambo and what this entails. However, little attention or effort has been devoted to engaging them in a dialogue about sustainable exploitation of the fishery and the type of management regime to achieve this. Specifically, there needs to be a mechanism to involve beneficiaries in the identification, formulation, development and implementation of policies and legislation for conserving the resource. One crucial aspect is how government together with communities can control investment driven fishing effort, which has been responsible for the decline of the chambo in Lake Malombe, the Upper Shire River and now the Southeast Arm.

It is well known that if fishers are intent on circumventing the regulations, it is almost impossible to stop them, no matter how strict the regulatory system. Flewwelling (1994) warns about the problem of creating unenforceable legislation. Such legislation, or that which is not understood or accepted by the fishers, rapidly destroys the credibility and support for government's efforts to conserve fish resources and results in active subversion of the regulations. Agrawal and Gibson (1999) propose that rather than using concepts of territory, social structure and shared values, an institutional approach that focuses on the ability of stakeholders to create and enforce rules—rules that are a product of social negotiation, economic and political forces—should be applied. These institutions may or may not tally with notions of ‘community’ and may, in fact, be the product of compromise between various actors. Since developing policy that would be favourable to all potential users might be impossible, the most potent solution is for government to ensure that the collective concerns of all stakeholders are voiced and taken into account when formulating policy and the regulatory framework for the chambo fishery in Malawi's southern aquatic system.

Acknowledgements

The research under the author's Ph.D. was funded by the Norwegian Council of Universities (NUFU). I am grateful to the two anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments that enabled me to improve and strengthen this paper. An earlier draft of this paper was presented at the Chambo Restoration Planning Workshop held at Boadzulu Lakeshore Resort, Mangochi, Malawi from 13–16 May 2003.

Notes

1

Chambo is a general local name for three closely related species of tilapine cichlids (namely Oreochromis squamipinnis, Oreochromis lidole and Oreochromis karongae).

2

Here, I refer to the Southeast Arm of Lake Malawi, the Upper Shire River and Lake Malombe as the ‘southern aquatic system’, because the three are ecologically and economically linked.

3

Relevant studies or reports on the chambo fishery include Trewavas (1942); Lowe (1952); Williamson's (1966) assessment of the data for the years 1946–1966, Tarbit's assessment for the years 1969 to 1973, the UNDP/FAO stock assessment done in 1972–1976, Chaika (1980) on problems of artisanal fisheries management on the South-East Arm, Mkoko (1981) on the status of chambo fishery on the Southeast Arm; Malawi Government/ODA artisanal fisheries assessment project (1989); and the Chambo Fisheries Management Project (Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations — FAO, 1993).

4

Estimated catch had declined from over 8000 tons in 1982 to about 100 tons in 1997 from Lake Malombe and from about 1200 tons in 1981 to about 0.2 tons in 1997 from the Upper Shire River.

5

Increase in effort due to increase in number of participants in the fishery.

6

Increase in effort due to increase in capitalisation of the fishery or improvements in technology.

7

Trewavas and her team had preceded Lowe in 1939. Unfortunately, their work was disrupted by the Second World War, resulting in the team being unable to fulfil its mandate.

8

The Act states that it is ‘An Act to provide for the regulation and control of fishing, and for the purchase, sale, marketing, processing, import and export of fish, to provide for the conservation of fish and further to provide for matters incidental to and connected with the foregoing.’

9

The closed season is meant to protect the chambo and young during the breeding, spawning and brooding season.

10

The term fisherfolk is used to refer to gear owners and their crew members, helpers, traders and other beneficiaries.

11

After independence in 1964, the MCP was the only political party in Malawi under the autocratic rule of Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda.

12

PMF is the paramilitary unit of the Malawi Police force. It was intended to be used for problems such as riot control.

13

By this time, it had been realised though that the multi-species character of the fishery warranted taking into account the other major stocks involved. An attempt was also made to look at the socio-economic aspects of the exploitation of the chambo.

14

Traditionally, the chilimira is used for catching utaka and usipa.

15

There was a twofold increase in the number of crew members (2996 to 8268) in chilimira units in the same period.

16

The village headman's traditional authority does not extend beyond land and is not therefore recognised out on the lake. This authority resides with government. Under the revised act of 1997, such authority can be delegated to local management bodies.

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