Fish is a traditional part of our diet. Compared to many other countries, Zambians have a distinctive preference for fish compared to other forms of essential protein such as beef or chicken. Fish and fish products account for a large proportion of our animal protein intake and provide essential micronutrients to the majority of Zambia’s population who are highly vulnerable to malnutrition. But we are eating less and less of it. Average per capita fish consumption has declined for many years.
A quick look at the history and statistics clearly show the natural fisheries of Zambia have played an important role in the country’s development. Total capture fish production has recently been about 70,000 to 80,000 tons a year and is about 40% of the animal protein consumed. This total fish production has increased from 40,000 tons in the late sixties and early seventies. However, the per capita supply of local fish has decreased from 12 kg to 7 kg per year. This is commonly attributed to a high population growth rate estimated at 3.2% per annum and limited supply. This increasing demand for fish has resulted in increasing prices and additional fishing pressure on nearly all of our wild fish stocks in our rivers and lakes. There is therefore an imperative need to improve the management of our capture fisheries resources if they are to continue to contribute positively to economic development and improved human health. Experts have told us we have reached the maximum amount of fish we can harvest and it is unlikely that there will be any increase of production from natural fisheries. Is this true? Fish production from Zambias fisheries are shown below. A look at fisheries around the world shows this is what has happened elsewhere and is exactly the same problem as virtually all other fisheries have, and is a typically common phenomenon globally. More and more people trying to catch less and less fish.
What can be done about it?
Importing more fish
Currently it is estimated that about 40,000 tons of fish is being imported into Zambia every year. At a very conservative price estimate of US$ 2-00 per Kg, this means we are paying over eighty million US dollars to import our additional fish requirements! Should we be spending this amount in foreign exchange when we have some of the best water resources in Africa? Can we not produce enough fish domestically to feed our population? And provide employment to thousands of people currently unemployed?
Traditional thinking is that we should take up fish farming. In fact, Zambia does produce a substantial amount of fish through this method, in the region of 10,000 tons a year. Developing this sector certainly can provide a considerable amount of fish to alleviate the present deficit. There are some large scale producers in Zambia, but developing this industry is expensive. Large amounts of capital is required for cages and ponds that need to be built, and the fish must be fed expensive food to ensure they grow properly. Is this the cheapest and most cost-effective way of providing quality affordable fish for Zambians? What are the alternatives?
Better management of our fisheries resources
Fisheries experts will tell you that one of the major problems causing low yields from natural fisheries is overfishing, and generally this takes the form of catching young fish with mosquito nets before they have had a chance to breed, or catching the breeding stock, and thereby not using the full potential of the fishery. This was the reason Zambia introduced the famous “fish ban” that is now almost universally ignored. Clearly, this is due to a failure to manage our fisheries resources by those people tasked to carry out this function. So what other tools can fisheries managers effectively use to ensure adequate supplies of this essential commodity? Is just trying to protect our existing fish resources enough, or should we be thinking of how it is possible to INCREASE our fish production from our wild fisheries?
Previous efforts to increase fish production have been done, right here in Zambia. Kapenta from Lake Tanganyika has been a staple food for generations, and after the Kariba dam was built, these fish were transported from Mpulungu and introduced to Kariba. Today, about 35,000 tons of Kapenta are harvested from the lake and provides considerable employment for thousands of people. This intervention has been praised extensively by fish experts and is often quoted as a prime example of good management.
So are there any other interventions that can be used to increase our fish production? Let’s take a look around the world and see where else this strategy has yielded positive results. Our first stop is supermarkets in Lusaka. And what do we see there? Tilapia – breams- from CHINA! These fish originally came from Africa, and now Africans are buying them back from the Chinese! What other types of fish are on sale here? Nile Perch from Tanzania! The same fish that are swimming next to the Kapenta in our part of Lake Tanganyika! How did this happen? Why are we importing fish we already have in Zambia?
A fact that many people may not be aware of is that these Nile Perch are actually not from Lake Tanganyika. They are from Lake Victoria. And the Nile Perch in Lake Victoria were INTRODUCED!
Nile perch was introduced into Lake Victoria by fishery Managers in the 1950s and by 1980 the Nile perch fishery had attained major commercial significance. Foreign and domestic investors installed fish processing plants specializing in Nile perch products. The demand for Nile perch landings increased the entry of a great number of fishermen into the fishery, currently about 300,000 people are employed directly in the fishery, and many more jobs were created in processing. In 2006, the Nile perch fishery contributed over 24% of the volume of fish harvest and 66% of income generated through fisheries in the three East African countries of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. In 2000, the harvest was 620,000 tons. In 2005 it was 804,000 tons and slightly over 1 million tons in 2006. Fish production in 2005 had a basic value of US $340 million; and that of 2006 had a value US $371 million. In 2005, Nile Perch contributed 32% of the volume of all fish landed from Victoria and 71% of the landed value.
This is a very impressive economic performance that has created hundreds of thousands of new jobs that were not there before. Additionally, it has given the three countries that have access to the lake a major exportable product that has earned them millions of dollars in foreign exchange. And, unlike copper, it is indefinitely sustainable!
How much did this intervention, that now generates over a BILLION DOLLARS in business, cost? The truth is we do not know. Apparently the Nile perch were introduced into Lake Victoria by personnel of the Uganda Fish and Game Department by simply transferring a few buckets of these fish from Lake Albert. Probable cost – not more than a few thousand dollars!
Can this intervention be replicated in Zambia?
After extensive research it seems highly likely this can be done. By extrapolating the improvement of fish catches in Lake Victoria to Lake Kariba and making adjustments for the size difference, it will probably lead to an increase of fish production of more than 400%!
Our current shortfall of fish that is being met by imports is about 40,000 tons as mentioned above. By introducing the original fish that co exists with the Kapenta we have already introduced, we can boost national fish production by over 150,000 tons. We will have changed the situation completely from being an importer to having a product to export! And diversified our economy and created thousands of jobs in the process. For the cost of moving a few fish from one lake to another.
This must surely be one of the most cost-effective ways of solving a problem!
My suggestion is that the Minister of Livestock and Fisheries looks into this suggestion with all the urgency and seriousness it deserves.
By Adrian Piers