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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Images Copyright: © Megan Alves