Illegal fishing is a problem in the Lake Malawi National Park, but there's good news for conservation in the area, says Mary Bailey.
The Lake Malawi National Park was founded in 1980 and comprises the Cape McClear area, the Maleri Islands, and a number of other islands in the southern part of the lake.
Fishing is banned within 100 metres of the shore in the Park and this is strictly enforced and obeyed as far as collecting aquarium fishes for export is concerned. However, it is virtually impossible to police native fishermen fishing illegally, especially at remote, uninhabited islands such as the Maleris.
In 2006 a group of concerned Malawians called Waterlands were awarded a concession at the Maleri Islands, allowing them to establish a camp on Nankoma Island, a lodge on Maleri Island, and a cottage on Nakantenga Island.
They were required to protect and where possible restore the original flora and fauna.
In order to prevent illegal fishing they devised anti-netting devices (ANDs) – barbed, buoyant contraptions that are anchored so that they float invisible a few metres down and entangle any nets deployed in the 100-metre no-fishing zone around the islands. This not only prevents fishing but acts as a deterrent, as nets are expensive.
This strategy has been very successful and there has been a marked recovery in fish numbers at the islands, the aquatic vegetation is recovering from the damage caused by nets, and the trees on the islands are no longer being felled for firewood. There are plans to expand the scheme to the main part of the Park, which is also being depleted of fishes by illegal fishing even though the Park headquarters is there.
The Maleri Island concession has recently been sold to new owners who are just as enthusiastic about conservation and have plans to make better, longer-lasting ANDs, as the original ones are already beginning to disintegrate and the local fishermen, who still work outside the protected zone, had noticed this and started to fish illegally again.
The Wamwai Dive School at Senga Bay has offered to position the ANDs, using a pneumatic drill underwater to drill holes in rocks for anchorage instead of the previous method of using containers of rocks from the islands as anchors.
The work will be done by divers who need underwater experience for their certification as dive master, and the drill can be run from a SCUBA air tank. In the meantime, because some fishing had started again, the Park authorities have provided a team of guards with a boat to patrol the islands.
Much of this work has been funded by aquarists via donations to the Stuart M. Grant Cichlid Conservation Fund, named in honour of the former exporter of Malawi cichlids who, sadly, died not long after the work on ANDs started.
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