Shenton Safaris

Fishing dilemma threatens Nsumbu

One of the biggest threats to Nsumbu National Park in northern Zambia, and for Lake Tanganyika on which it is situated, is over-fishing by local communities and commercial interests. For the people of the Tabwa and Lungu tribes, which make up the majority of the communities around the national park, fishing the waters of the lake is a divine right.


The Tabwa hold Nundu, their fishing deity, as an important part of their culture. Each year during the kapenta season (which runs from June to November) Nundu presides over the Chisanse fishing village, a traditional site on a beach inside Nsumbu National Park where local fishermen are afforded an amnesty to fish within a restricted area inside the park.

nsumbu-fishermen fish-nets-clean

Permits to fish from Chisanse are issued by the Zambian Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) on recommendations given by the local Community Resources Board and strict rules are imposed to ensure no commercial fishing takes place in the restricted area, no alcohol is kept in Chisanse or used by any fishermen and no women and children are allowed in the village after sunset.

wooden-fishing-boats commercial-fishing-boats

However, the reality of the situation is completely different. Kapenta fishing takes place at night, and tiller lights are used to attract the fish to the nets. Every night, during season, the shores of the lake around Nsumbu and its myriad inlets, coves and bays, are lit up like a Christmas tree by fishermen who openly flout the rules, fishing commercially outside the legislated area set aside for them by ZAWA, using banned beach sein nets (a “u” shaped net dragged along the bottom of the lake off beaches), ring nets and gill nets with mesh smaller than the regulation 10mm which allows fry to escape in sensitive breeding areas. The result is that kapenta stocks in this area of the lake have been seriously depleted and the average size of fish caught is reducing sharply.

fish dead-fish netted-crocodile

When apprehended, illegal fishermen usually jump ship, preferring their chances in Lake Tanganyika to a stiff fine or jail sentence. Others resort to violence, trying to pour petrol onto patrol boats and their occupants in an effort to set fire to them and evade prosecution.


The stand-off between ZAWA and illegal fishermen came to a head towards the end of last year when four scouts on a patrol boat bravely apprehended and boarded a large commercial fishing vessel with 15 suspects on board. All but one of the suspects jumped overboard and while 12 managed to escape, two tragically drowned while trying to swim for shore. Six ZAWA houses in Nsumbu were burnt down in the resulting backlash from the fishing community.

fish-catch fish-nets wooden-fishing-boat

Things have since settled down again and, thanks to the work of Conservation Lake Tanganyika and the local ZAWA officers, progress is being made to better protect the lake and the park’s sensitive nursery areas and to educate the local fishermen.

local-fisherman local-fishermen fishing-boat

Images Copyright: © Megan Alves

Sharon Gilbert-Rivett (formerly van Wyk)

Africa and its wild places grabbed award-winning writer and film-maker Sharon Gilbert-Rivett (formerly van Wyk) when she was but a babe. Her family hauled her from the UK to Kenya when she was three, to South Africa when she was seven and what is now Zimbabwe when she was 11, before taking her back to Cambridge, the town of her birth, to be schooled. She was pushed into journalism in the early 1980s by her first boyfriend, rock guitarist Phil Collen of Def Leppard. "I used to write him long letters while he was on tour and he nagged me to turn pro, so I did," she says. Sharon returned to South Africa permanently in 1991, trading black leather for khaki and rock magazines for mainstream media. She now writes widely on conservation, eco-tourism, safari and travel and also makes natural history documentaries with her company, Painted Earth Productions.

Africa Geographic