BY LIZWE SEBATHA
BINGA — Andrew Mukombwe remembers with nostalgia the good old days when they used to clock tonnes of fresh kapenta fish per month.
“Each rig would give us about 10 tonnes of fresh kapenta per month. This translated to approximately 10 000kg of dried matemba per month,” Mukombwe says.
“Trucks would come to load our catch. These days things have changed, we only sell a few bags after the catch.”
Mukombwe says competition is high as hundreds of people flock to Binga to catch fish for a living. For minority communities who live near large rivers and dams like the BaTonga, fishing has been an art perfected over the years.
It has not only been a hobby, but a source of living for the BaTonga who have relied on a rich diet of fish for years.
Visitors to Binga often make a stopover at the Siachilaba fish market where they are spoiled for choice with different fish types from tiger, bottlenose to matemba.
However, with Covid-19-induced job losses, a number of people have “invaded” Binga bringing aggressive competition to the BaTonga, threatening their survival, says Mukombwe.
Locals are worried that poachers have little regard for the breeding cycle of the fish.
“The competition has seen the gloss of the once-thriving fish harvesting business dimming by each passing day because of these fish poachers,” says Mukombwe.
“The poachers (outsiders) are also catching fish at breeding areas, hence the fish are not multiplying. This threatens our survival as we have been surviving on fishing for years.”
Fishing in breeding areas is an offences that violates fishing permit conditions and offenders are liable for prosecution while their fishing rigs are confiscated.
“Operating routines have since changed, largely influenced by the harsh economic situation. Only those with permits issued by the Binga Rural District Council (RDC) are expected to be found in fishing villages,” Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZimParks) spokesperson Tinashe Farawo says.
Binga RDC chief executive, Joshua Muzamba referred this publication to ZimParks when asked what measures are being employed to enforce lawful fishing.
Benson Moyo (not his real name), a Bulawayo resident, does not have a fishing permit but says he travels to Binga every Monday to catch fish to sell for the desperately needed income.
“I ventured into fishing matemba for a living in April last year after my cross-border business was affected by the closure of land borders,” Moyo says.
The government closed borders in March 2020 as a Covid-19 preventive measure. The borders were re-opened in December 2020, but closed again in January following a spike in Covid-19 cases.
The borders remain closed.
“We play cat-and-mouse with the police and ZimParks rangers. At the end of the day, I have to feed my family,” Moyo adds as he confesses that he has never applied for a fishing permit.
Moyo and his associates sell 1.5kg of bream fish for US$5.
Zimbabwe’s kapenta permits cost US$2 000 per annum. The Tonga used to enjoy unlimited access to the Zambezi, but this started changing about two decades ago when government departments including Zimparks, local district councils and the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (ZIMRA) started charging levies to fish the river.
The fees at first were small and the authorities were not strict, but they have been increasing over the years.
“I don’t have that kind of money, besides the process of getting a permit is too cumbersome,” says Moyo, a Bulawayo resident who goes fishing in Binga.
“Business has been good after the recent lifting of Covid-19 travel restrictions as this has also seen us (with his associates) cut down on costs of paying bribes at roadblocks.”
According to ZimParks, illegal fishing in Binga has resulted in over-exploitation of the resource, constraining breeding and recovery of the generally fast-reproducing fish, mainly kapenta.
The quality of the fish is also affected. Running battles pitting local fishermen and “invaders” are common.
“At the moment, the kapenta and gillnet fisheries are fully subscribed; no new permits will be issued for any of the two fisheries to ensure the sustainability of the fisheries and availability for future generations,” Farawo says.
To help control the overharvesting of fish, ZimParks and their Zambian counterparts introduced a Full Moon Calendar which suspends all rig fishing for the seven last days of each month in Zimbabwe and 10 days per month in Zambia.
However, fish poachers like Moyo are on the prowl, disregarding the fishing regulations, a situation that has seen Mukombwe and BaTonga communities engaging ZimParks to deploy rangers to weed out the practice.
* This article was originally published by The Citizen Bulletin, a nonprofit news organization that produces hard-hitting, hyperlocal reporting and analysis for the southwestern region of Matabeleland.