Marked for failure – why the Kariba fishery is a sinking boat

A report presented last month by the principal ecologist at Lake Kariba’s Fisheries Research Institute, Itai Hilary Tendaupenyu, paints a grim picture. According to his report, whereas one rig averaged 1400kgs of wet kapenta a night in the 1970s, in 2012/13 fishermen could only expect 80kgs. In 2014, this figure has dropped to 50kgs or even less, from my own observations. The report observes that the “downward trend is distinct and raises questions about whether the industry will sti

A fishing rig heading ashore after a night on the lake. Kariba contributes up to 70 per cent of Zimbabwe’s fish.
A fishing rig heading ashore after a night on the lake. Kariba contributes up to 70 per cent of Zimbabwe’s fish.

Realising the consequences of the continuous drop in average catches, Kariba’s big commercial fisheries have chosen to sacrifice their employees and jump the sinking boat.

Most fishing operations deceived their employees, forcing them to resign en masse and join quasi-empowerment schemes that are no different from the pyramid money schemes. You are given the fishing rigs at a peak time in the fishing season to lure you into a mistaken belief that you have found your El Dorado. This is a ruse that has seen people lose their employee benefits and sink increasingly into unredeemable debt.

They get to lease the fishing rigs and fishing permits from their erstwhile bosses at fees beyond their nascent entrepreneurship. They get no business management training nor are they warned of the risks involved.

What is more worrisome is that there are no prior consultations, with figures of previous seasons being taken into consideration and the employees have no choice but to sign on the dotted line. Soon they fall behind in rents and lose both the rigs and fishing permits.

What went wrong?

The Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZPWMA) cannot escape censure here. In the light of dwindling returns for fee-paying commercial fishing operations, ZPWMA has relentlessly increased fishing fees each year. Ultimately, the harvest and return is not in tandem with the investment, forcing operators into ignominious activities to stay afloat.

At yet another stakeholders’ meeting earlier this month, Nesbert Mapfumo, representing the fishing sector, told the deputy minister of agriculture (in charge livestock and veterinary services), Paddy Zhanda, and his environment, water resources and climate change counterpart, Simon Musanhu, that the ZPWMA charges more than its regional counterparts, including Zambia, with whom we share the same lake.

It would have been manageable if ZPWMA’s culpability ended there, but alas, it has allowed fishing to go the way of the farming sector.

These fish drying racks are not constructed properly – a sign of the gradual decline of Kariba’s once-thriving kapenta industry.
These fish drying racks are not constructed properly – a sign of the gradual decline of Kariba’s once-thriving kapenta industry.

Like the land reform programme, the purpose of deliberately giving fishing permits to co-operatives and other previously disadvantaged individuals was not “recreational”, but to equip those capable in the sector with equal and legal access to the resource.

The tendency now is that those with fishing permits do not fish. Some never did. Instead, they preferred to let them out to third parties at higher cost. This pushes the cost of fishing to a much a higher cost than that projected by ZPWMA.

These armchair fishermen have ZPWMA bless their usurious lease agreements with third parties who sink deeper and deeper into debt. It’s a sorry sight. Like cellphone farmers who have compromised agriculture and the nation’s food security, the ‘landlord’ fishermen are a menace to the fishing sector.

Skewed indigenisation

It should have dawned on ZPWMA by now that those not fishing for a certain period should not be allowed to hold permits for speculative purposes, which is a breach of the conditions under which they were issued with permits. This cannot be indigenisation. If it is, then it is senseless.

Check this scenario: A guy is supposed to pay $2,000 a year to ZPWMA for a fishing permit. He goes on to lease it out for 95kgs of dried kapenta a month ($5,700). The tenant fishermen still have to pay ZPWMA their $2,000 in monthly or quarterly instalments, eventually paying $7,700. What a botched empowerment plan!

Hardly any original fishing permit holder is fishing on Lake Kariba at the moment, particularly in the eastern basin of the lake. It is more lucrative to just lease out the permits to third parties.

The big commercial enterprises have now entered this game, enslaving their former workers into perpetual debt. Again, this is not empowerment but a different form of abuse, as the workers, untrained in any aspect of the business, are marked for failure.

The effects of such a system have been more than catastrophic on Lake Kariba. The ‘real’ fishermen, as opposed to ‘landlord’ fishermen, are forced to fish in undesignated areas just to break even, if at all. Fishing in river mouths, in shallow waters and other breeding areas means the fish are deprived of an opportunity to replenish stocks.

The truth is, even if they fish in breeding areas, they won’t catch enough to make them break even in these times of dwindling catches.

An ugly phenomenon has arisen on the lake in response to the challenge. Some have found it more profitable to buy fish from unscrupulous fishermen. Rigs with no fishing nets and other fishing paraphernalia have been known to go out at night, after the Lake Navigation Control offices have closed, to ‘fish’ with money and come back early in the morning with good catches. The mafia involved are known, as well as the harbours that accommodate them, and yet ZPWMA have turned a blind eye to the practice.

In the end, figures of fish catches they are given, and rely on, are falsified and not a true reflection of the situation on the ground. The people paying them fees to fish cannot remain viable and the industry is faced with collapse.

Derelict rigs are a common sight on Lake Kariba.
Derelict rigs are a common sight on Lake Kariba.

Yes, the red claw Australian crayfish has come in at the wrong time, but no-one can honestly, and with empirical evidence, say that it is the biggest problem on Lake Kariba. The human and environmental factors are more worrying to any observant eye. After all, the crayfish can be turned into a lucrative business venture themselves, if need be.

It is hard to imagine how recommendations on the optimum number of fishing units on each side of the lake are just ignored to the extent that at times you have more than three times the recommended number and yet fish catches are expected to remain good or even improve. It simply defies logic. The lack of intervening measures by the authorities in both Zambia and Zimbabwe is nothing short of scandalous.

The biggest losers are the fishermen themselves, but the country suffers too if the industry is allowed to collapse. Kariba contributes up to 70 per cent of Zimbabwe’s total fish output and plays an important role in the food security of the nation.

Something need to be done urgently to stop this decline.

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