Legal and illegal networks are threatening the fish stocks in Namibia’s rivers and reservoirs. There are regulatory laws, but control is lacking. Sport fishermen and communities that depend on fishing already feel the impact of the dwindling stocks.
Lodge owners, especially on the Kavango River, as well as sport fishermen and fishing experts demand that all fishing nets be banned. The traditional leaders, who have strictly regulated fishing along the Kavango for decades, are also in favour of a ban. Stricter and better controls are demanded for the other rivers, too – the Kwando, Chobe, Linyanti and the Zambezi. Private individuals and companies have employed fish guards for a section of the Zambezi River. Their salaries and the equipment they use are paid by the private sector. A tributary on the Namibian side of the Zambezi River has been proclaimed a fish sanctuary. Fish guards from the Sikunga Conservancy patrol this section as well as the Zambezi section on Namibian side and look for the prohibited monofilament fishing nets and longlines. Each month they take several kilometres of illegal netting out of the water, mostly set by Zambians.
“We have almost no fish left in the Kavango, because the stock has been drastically reduced through the use of legal and illegal fishing nets. Kavango fishermen complain about Caprivians conducting commercial fishing in the Kavango River, especially during the three months when commercial fishing is not allowed in the Zambezi,” says the Senior Fisheries Biologist at the Kamutjonga Inland Fisheries Institute (KIFI), Dr Francois Jacobs. The topic of his doctoral thesis was Nature Conservation Ecology of Tigerfish in the Kavango. The river is known as Cubango in Angola and Okavango in Botswana.
The Freshwater Fishery Department of the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources is responsible for the fish in dams and rivers. In certain areas, such as Bwabwata National Park and Mahango National Park bordering it to the west, the Ministry of Environment and Tourism is also part of the efforts to protect fish stocks and combat illegal fishing. But according to experts the stocks of tiger fish, various tilapia species and catfish have dropped dramatically in the national parks as well. They say that fishermen, even from neighbouring Botswana, have illegally invaded the park with their mokoros and fishing nets to exploit the rivers there.
Dr Jacobs promotes the establishment of fish protection areas in sections of the river where – safe for a few exceptions – fishing and angling will be strictly prohibited to allow for the undisturbed recovery of stocks so that other parts can be repopulated again. He envisages protected sections with a length of ten to fifteen kilometres each, controlled by the Ministry of Fisheries and the Ministry of the Environment, but with responsibility also transferred to the traditional leaders and thus the communities.
The drought and the resulting low water levels of the rivers have added to the negative impact on fish stocks this year. Since the floodplains are not flooded, the newly hatched fish of most species are unable to get into those shallower, densely vegetated areas to find shelter and food. Instead they have to stay in the main river, says Dr Jacobs, which means less protection, less food and a lot more predators. On top of that the water temperature is usually lower. If no sexually mature animals from this generation survive, the effects will be seen in about five years, the fish expert said.
The fish stocks in the rivers forming the country’s north-eastern border are important for tourism but have far more significance for the rural population. On the Kavango River alone, some 24 000 people depend on fishing. A healthy fish population affects the diversity of birds which in turn attracts tourists. Another aspect of the ecological balance is that fewer birds on the riverbanks leave fewer droppings, i.e. vital nutrients for plants, and fewer plants translate yet again into fewer fish and birds.
Author: Dirk Heinrich