Fluctuating fisheries and rural livelihoods at Lake Malawi
This research investigates the livelihoods of artisanal fishing families at Lake Malawi.
The key research question that it addresses is how artisanal fishers adapt their
behaviour to cope with fluctuations in fish availability that occur naturally, i. e. that do
not occur primarily as the outcome of human fishing behaviour. In Lake Malawi two
such fish species, usipa and utaka, exhibit considerable spatial, seasonal, and interannual
variability. These species are also by far the most important for the artisanal
Fluctuating fisheries pose special challenges for livelihoods and fisheries management.
For livelihoods they imply big seasonal variations in the ability of families to rely on
fishing as a primary livelihood component, and they make fishing-based livelihoods
insecure and risky. For fisheries management, they pose the problem that the true
status of the resource is almost impossible to measure, with apparent risks in both
directions: that overly restrictive management will result in an unexploited resource
that could have made a greater contribution to the livelihoods of poor people and to the
nutritional status of the population of Malawi more generally; or that overly lax
management will result in a depletion of the resource beyond its sustainable yield.
The research shows that fishers adapt to the fluctuating fish stocks in two main ways.
One way is to specialise mainly in fishing but to emphasise mobility, so that short and
medium term movements around the lake are made in pursuit of the resource. The
other way is to maintain diverse livelihoods, combining fishing with farming and other
non-farm income generating activities. There are, of course, also intermediate cases
between these two opposing poles.
The research demonstrates that migration for fishing purposes brings benefits both to
migrants and resident communities. While for the migrants it is important to be
allowed to settle for varying periods at different lakeshore beaches and villages; for
residents the presence of the mobile fishers brings an increase of cash into circulation,
the arrival of fish traders, the ability to open shops and bars to service this increased
activity, and more buoyant markets for locally produced commodities. There are thus
important income and employment benefits for resident communities that result from
the behaviour of fishing migrants. At Lake Malawi, migrant fishermen tend to be from
the Tonga ethnic group from the north of the country, and they generally differ in
ethnicity from the resident communities where they take up temporary settlement.
Fisheries policy in Malawi has been moving away from a top-down regulation by the
Fisheries Department towards the idea of community management of fisheries. The
argument is that if fishing communities are given their own powers to enforce
regulations, within a participatory framework, then community self-interest will ensure
that regulations are properly policed. This idea involves establishing territoriality over
areas of the lake, so that "beach village committees" (BVCs) have regulatory powers
over the lake areasa djacentt o villages. The researchd emonstratesth at there are many
flaws in this concept in the case of Lake Malawi: BVCs are dominated by part-time
fishing or non-fishing residents, migrants are excluded, territoriality is nonsensical for
a mobile resource, and previously successful reciprocal relationships and other
complex adaptive strategies are weakened and disrupted.
The artisanal fishery in Malawi is opportunistic; it adapts to fluctuations either by
ceasing to fish or by moving to other fishing grounds. It is argued that this sort of
fishing requires minimal management, in which mobility and diversity are recognised
and encouraged. If indeed there is a threat to the resource, it is rather the large scale
commercial sector comprising a few trawlers of immense capacity relative to the yield
potential of the Lake that pose that threat. There is an unequivocal need to monitor and
regulate the catch volumes of this sector. For the artisanal fishery, however, a low key,
flexible and resilient management approach is suggested; one that builds on the
strengths of existing patterns of behaviour rather than seeking to change and