Lake Malawi, one of the deepest in the world, is estimated to have the largest concentration of freshwater fish species – up to 1,000, according to the UN Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).
This Great Rift Valley lake is home to some prized species, sometimes for collectors, but more importantly for locals who depend on fish as a good source of protein.
The dire news is that the prized Oreochromis lidole, a type of Tilapia better known as Chambo in the country, has been so sorely depleted from overfishing and also as a consequence of climate change, that it is probably now facing extinction. Ask anyone in Malawi and they know what Chambo is. Indeed, it is part of local culture. If you’re a Malawian away from home for a long time, chances are you’re missing Chambo in your diet.
In its last study on Chambo, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimated in 2004 that the population had declined 70 percent over the previous 10 years. This is according to William Darwell, head of the IUCN’s freshwater biodiversity unit.
Chambo has now been listed as an endangered species, and is on the IUCN red listing. What’s needed is government intervention so seasonal fishing bans are enforced. Environmental degradation must also be halted. Climate change is said to have affected rainfall patterns and caused a drop in the lake’s water levels, also hit by the effects of deforestation on tributaries feeding the lake.
“The primary reasons why the fish stocks, specifically chambo, are going down is overfishing, (and) degradation issues because of factors related to the effects of climate change,” said William Chadza, director of the Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy in Blantyre, the country’s finance and commerce hub.
A lake fisherman, Edward Njeleza, told AFP: “We used to spend just about two hours out on the lake and come back with a boatload of fish — now we need about 12 hours, and bring back less than before.” That’s a 90% shrinkage and it is not known if stocks can be replenished. In fact, some of us who are Malawians might simply have to say a sad goodbye to one of our favorite foods. Unless, that is, something drastic is done.