Lake Kariba is at the centre of an acrimonious fight over fishing rights pitting Zimbabwean fishermen and their Zambian counterparts, with locals accusing the northern neighbours of crossing into their territorial waters to poach Kapenta fish leading to an alarming decline of stocks in the lake, according to Zimbabwean media.
So bitter is the fight that it is threatening to turn violent.
According to Zimbabwean media, the Zambians, who are allegedly armed with guns and other weapons that include machetes and knives, are not only fishing illegally, they are overfishing in waters that belong to Zimbabwe and are said to fish in banned waters, rivers and breeding areas.
The Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority prohibits fishing in rivers and breeding areas.
The Zambians are alleged to be using banned four-millimetre fishing nets that can catch even the smallest fish.
The nets that are being used by Zimbabwean fishermen are eight millimetres and allow the small fish to escape so that they grow and replenish the stock.
According to the maritime laws agreed by Zimbabwe and Zambia in 1999, Zimbabwean fishermen are supposed to have 55 percent fishing boats on the lake and Zambians 45 percent. However, Zambian boats are said to outnumber Zimbabwean boats.
The Zambian boat fleet is more than double the recommended number on the lake and as a result catches have plunged by more than half over the last two decades.
Zimbabwe’s Minister of Environment, Water and Climate, Cde Saviour Kasukuwere, confirmed that there was a crisis in terms of the imbalances in fishing in the lake, which he said required both countries to rectify at a diplomatic level.
“While I am not aware of the Zambians employing such dangerous tactics, what I know is that over the past couple of years there has been a serious conflict in terms of fishing rights within the lake.
“The problem we face is that of unscrupulous fishing by some operators and the uneven numbers of fishing rigs between the two countries, but I believe this can only be solved by the two countries taking a hands-on approach in addressing the problem,” said Minister Kasukuwere.
National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority spokesperson, Ms Caroline Washayamoyo, had not responded to questions sent to her through e-mail, but in separate interviews Zimbabwean fishermen in Binga said the stocks of Kapenta fish in Lake Kariba were becoming alarmingly low and were no longer sustainable resulting in catches dropping significantly in the last five years.
In 2009 Zimbabwean fishermen said they used to catch about 60 bags of Kapenta fish, but illegal overfishing by Zambians had seen the number plummeting to about 20 bags.
Mr Richard Kaitano, the secretary of Kariva Co-operative lamented to Sunday News that Zambian fishermen encroached on their waters to fish.
He said Zimbabwean fishermen would not attempt to chase away their Zambian counterparts because they were armed.
“We are like sitting ducks in the Lake because we don’t have guns and they have guns. We follow the laws of the National Parks to the letter but the Zambians have no laws to control their behaviour in the water, they do what they want. When they come to our waters we move away without causing any problems because in the past our colleagues were injured by them,” said Mr Kaitano.
Mr Kaitano urged the National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority to intervene and stop the illegal fishing by the Zambians.
“We have been holding meetings with our Zambian counterparts but they do not respect the agreements we make. The National Parks is always arresting Zambians in these waters but it’s obvious that they are not being deterred; something drastic needs to be done to stop them from poaching in our waters. What they are doing is daylight robbery even though Kapenta fishing is done at night.
“Whenever we alert the National Parks they respond and use speed boats to chase and catch the Zambians. They impound the rigs and arrest the fishermen. The rigs are made to pay a fine of $4 000 for them and the fishermen to be released but amazingly this does not deter them from encroaching into our waters,” he said.
One time there was a consensus to freeze fishing from October to December to save stock but Zimbabwean fishermen were forced to fish before the ban period elapsed because their Zambian counterparts did not adhere to the set fishing schedule.
Another kapenta fisherman, Mr Edward Marufu, said the main problem stemmed from dwindling stock of kapenta fish.
“The problem is that the Zambians, because there are no strict rules on how they fish, have almost exhausted the kapenta fish on their side. So as a result they come into our territory to poach. Not only do they poach in fishing areas, they go into breeding waters and rivers and fish the baby fish that is needed to replenish the stock. The difference between us and them is that we work intelligently to preserve our fish stocks, they don’t. We don’t go into rivers and breeding areas because we want our fish to grow but all this effort is to no avail because the Zambians come and poach. That is not right,” Mr Marufu said.
Mr Elson Ndlovu said Zimbabwean fishermen were losing patience and were close to retaliating because they had nothing to lose.
“We are getting to a point where we will say enough is enough. These people are taking advantage of the fact that we are a peace-loving people. Even peace loving people react violently when they have nothing to lose. We live because of the kapenta fish, if you take that away from us we will be left with nothing. They told us that they will not stop poaching, one day they will find us so enraged that we will have to fight to defend our source of food and money,” said Mr Ndlovu.
Under a 1999 agreement, Zimbabwe has the right to 55 percent of the boats on the lake, whose kapenta population can support 500 rigs.
In 1999, there was a combined total of 605 rigs, according to a research paper by Loveness Madamombe of the Norwegian College of Fishery Science at the University of Tromso.
A year later, Zambia had 185 licensed boats in 2000, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation said.
The kapenta, which are attracted using fluorescent lights then scooped up in round nets, are dried and sold in both countries as a cheap source of protein. Zambia has 725 kapenta boats, or rigs, on the lake, while Zimbabwe has 406, according to the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority.
Kariba covers 5 580 square kilometres (2 155 square miles) and can hold 185 billion cubic metres (653 billion cubic feet) of water, according to Water-Technology.net.