Kariba fishing industry crisis looms

Lake Kariba was born on 2nd December 1958 when the dam wall was completed and the Zambezi River waters started rising behind it. With floodwater pouring in, the lake waters rose rapidly, reaching maximum capacity in 1963 to form what was then the world’s largest man-made lake. The large expanse of fertile water provided an abundance of fish for thousands of fishermen. The future looked promising.

In his book Fishes of Kariba, Dale Kenmuir, writes that when sardines (kapenta – Limnothrissa Miodon) were introduced, they exploded: “Teeming masses of silvery sardines swarmed in the open waters where previously there was nothing. Soon a twinkling armada of fishing boats bobbed on the dark waters at night, dipping and hauling, hauling and dipping. Enthusiasm waxed. Tonnes of fish flooded onto the market, employment rose, Kariba thrived and everyone was happy”.

From early research it was noted that the lake’s fish populations responded to environmental factors and that our fish resources are not inexhaustible or impervious to abuse. Co-operation is necessary among all concerned to preserve them for present and future generations.

Today we have arrived at a situation where those concerned cannot afford to behave as if things were normal. We are faced with a crisis and only decisive action can rescue the disaster on Lake Kariba. There are two main types of fisheries in Lake Kariba that have been fully studied according to the Lake Kariba Fisheries Research Institute, a Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority unit.

Types of fishing

These are the commercial Kapenta fishery (offshore) and the Gillnet/artisanal fishery (inshore) mostly used by those communities that previously relied on fish in the Zambezi River. The aquaculture sector is nascent and there is only one major company operating, namely Lake Harvest Aquaculture. It provides the best hope for future fish production on the lake. Kariba fisheries contribute 60 -70% of Zimbabwe’s total fish output and therefore have a crucial role in the country’s food security.

What has changed?

Several writers and researchers have raised concerns about a number of issues that have affected the bio-diversity of the lake. These include climate change, crayfish invasion, overfishing and poaching.

Dale Kenmuir found that “Most physical and chemical events in the lake are influenced or even dictated by climate – the three most important conditions being rainfall, temperature and wind. Warm air raises the water temperature, cool air lowers it, wind agitates water and mixes it, rain brings in nutrients, and so on.”

Any significant changes in these elements are bound to affect biodiversity in Lake Kariba. Climate change has taken prominence in recent years and measures have to be taken by those mandated to manage the lake’s affairs to mitigate the effects of climate change. It is hoped that the Ministry of Environment, Water and Climate will stay focused and achieve its aims.

Crayfish Menace

In recent years it has been discovered that Lake Kariba is infested with the foreign and invasive Australian Red Claw Crayfish. Crayfish are voracious and omnivorous, feeding on live or decaying animal or vegetable matter. They destroy fish nests, deprive the marine life of their usual sources of food and generally decimate them.

Crayfish are the arch enemy of existing fisheries. The Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZPWMA) should promote consumption of this species so that it is reduced instead of levying unviable fees on those intending to exploit the crayfish commercially. If managed properly, the crayfish threat could be minimal and evolve into a lucrative alternative to the traditional fishery. If mismanaged, the crayfish can wreak irreparable damage.

Fish poaching has been rampant in recent years and includes, amongst other practices, fishing in prohibited breeding areas, river mouths, shallow waters and using banned four-millimetre fishing nets. Zimbabwean fishermen have also complained of their Zambian counterparts disrespect set boundaries and fish in Zimbabwe waters with banned net sizes and twine nets. Progressively dwindling catches have fuelled poaching.


Pirates are a major threat. Crafts of all manner and size are criss-crossing the lake at night buying fish illegally from the crew of fee-paying commercial operators. Besides threatening safe passage on the lake, these pirates are compromising the operations of legally established operations and lead to the compiling of figures reflecting a skewed position as the clandestine night sales are never recorded. It might be that catches have not really fallen drastically but that the pirates have had a free reign and recorded catches are all wrong. One of the immediate needs of arresting the situation on Lake Kariba is to totally cut off this illegal trade and start recording correcting, reliable information.

Although licensing is believed to be less rigorous in neighbouring Zambia, on the Zimbabwean side fishing permits are mostly held by non-fishing entities who then sublet them at more than double what ZPWMA actually charge. This pushes Zimbabwe’s tenant fishermen to exert more fishing effort due to increased license fees and failing catches.

The charges required ZPWMA and landlord fishermen fuel poaching, piracy and a general disregard of the regulations. The charges are the highest in Africa, south of the Equator, according the Kapenta Producers Association. Sub-letting fishing permits is a violation of the terms and conditions under which they are issued.

Possible Solutions

The position paper by ZPWMA entitled “Fisheries of Lake Kariba – Where are we and where are we going” presented at a Stakeholders’ meeting in Kariba (March 2014) is unequivocal in stating that “it is undeniable that immediate action is needed to address the situation”. It also observes that although the remedies may prove unpopular with operators, they are necessary for the preservation and continued existence of the fishing industry.

1. Government Development Policy: There is no publicly espoused government fisheries development policy. The situation is compounded by the fact that three ministries vie for the control of the lake – fishing falls under Agriculture in a water body that has been declared a recreational park and falls under the Ministry of Environment, Water and Climate. The operation, monitoring and maintenance of the Kariba Complex falls to the Zambezi River Authority (ZRA) which reports to the Ministry of Power Development and Energy. At times this duplicity of roles blurs the clarity and slows decisions.

2. Bridging the skills development gap in the Zambezi valley: A skills-based development of the area that will remove some of the people from the lake, ease pressure on the fishing industry and expose former fishermen to other pursuits of economic value is needed. There is no institution of higher learning in Kariba or surrounding areas. Furthermore, people have no reason to preserve what they do not benefit from.

3. Fishing Permits: Total withdrawal of some fishing licences and their re-allocation should be considered. Landlord fishermen charge as much as three times what ZPWMA charge. Cancellation of permits of repeated offenders will be a prohibitive measure, particularly now that it has become apparent that the number of fishing rigs has to be reduced to sustainable levels.

4. Reduced Parks charges: It has been noted that fishing operations and leisure boaters on Lake Kariba contribute immensely to fuel consumption in the country and since their tax does not filter down to repairing anything on Lake Kariba, it is suggested that they should be charged reduced fees for accessing the lake. The government receives a sizeable percentage as tax which is not required to maintain roads on Lake Kariba, so the operational fees should be reduced to moderate levels. If the lake were under the control of one Ministry, this would be easy to implement.

5. Increased Lake Navigation Control and ZPWMA presence on the Lake: According to ZPWMA, “it has been proven that the increased presence of Parks details on the Lake results in reduced numbers of illegal activities.” One then wonders why this is not done. One of the reasons is that fairly little of the revenue collected from the Lake-users is ploughed back into Kariba. In the end Parks, without telling you the whys and wherefores of where the revenue generated from fishing, leisure boaters and tourists is absorbed, will tell you they need their details to be adequately equipped with boats, fuel and manpower. Incidents of Parks officers falsifying and under-declaring collections are on the rise.

6. Cull the Crocodiles: Recent reports indicate that increased incidences of fatal crocodile attacks on Lake Kariba are affecting tourist arrivals to the resort. ZPWMA can raise money, which they are currently losing, by offering these crocodiles to hunters and operators for a fee.

7. Arrest and Prosecute: It’s amazing how and why illegal fish buyers and those selling the fish to them (particularly in the Kapenta industry) are not taken to task for theft. Legal fish operations need to be supported by the authorities in order for them to receive the correct catches and benefit from their operations.

8. Private Anti-poaching Initiatives: Most anti-poaching initiatives on Lake Kariba are private efforts. These need to be capacitated, empowered to arrest by equipping with tip-off service telephone lines and radios. In this day and age with mobile phones, it would not be an impossible task.

9. Incentivise Increase and Improve Aquaculture: Kariba’s waters provide optimal conditions for fish breeding on land and in cages on the lake. Investors should, therefore, be encouraged to venture into this untapped fish-farming platform which promises great rewards.

The author is an Incentive Travel Organizer, Kariba Destination Planner and a certified ZimHost who has written extensively about and promotes tourism into the Kariba and Zambezi Valley areas. He can be reached by e-mail on: [email protected]

Post published in: News
  1. Jennifer Buchanan

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