This past week the Minister Enviroment Wildlife and Tourism Tshekedi Khama placed a twelve month ban on fishing due to issues pertaining to sanitation, overcrowding and mispricing by Zambian pirate fishermen at Lake Ngami and Lake Xau in the Maun region.
“It was necessary to ban it until fishermen get organized and proper regulatory policies are put in place,” reassured Bareetsi Bogaisang, Ngami Fishing Cluster Chairman.
This development comes following outrage by local fishermen that government should intervene on the illicit fishing activities going on at Lake Ngami perpetuated by Zambian and Congolese nationals who flood the wetlands in Botswana without permits, causing severe threats including possible extinction of species, economic losses as well as loss of livelihood in the region. They had complained that Batswana remain disadvantaged since they have no market and trade regulations remain very stringent with regards to exporting fish.
An official at the Department of Environmental Affairs, Dr Michael Flyman said that there has been a growing concern about the mushrooming of illegal fishermen who essentially export these fish without proper permits to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia and neighboring countries.
A few years ago when government moved the Department of Fisheries from the Ministry of Agriculture to the Department of Wildlife and Tourism, no proper dispensation of policy regulations was created to ensure the sustainable exploitation of fish in Botswana.
The paradox that exists, according to fishermen, is that under agriculture, fishing was viewed as food for community consumption while the tourism ministry’s approach is more about conservation and protecting species. The fishing sector remains displaced with policies unclearly defined but at the same time the tribal communities need to fish for food and social welfare.
Dr Flyman argues that even tourism is more concerned with conservation; they embrace a philosophy of sustainable utilisation as part and parcel of their mandate.
“It would then overlap with agriculture policies if it was aquaculture but if the species are wild it is our role to intervene and decide the usage,” he added.
Although appreciated as a means to start combating illegal fishing in Ngami, the ban has also been criticized as being too sudden and carried out without consultation of the fishing communities in the area.
Fishing Cluster Chairman Bagaisang complained that Batswana get cheated as they are forced to sell at lower prices locally while Zambians triple the prices in their country.
Another reason for the immediate ban has been the environmental challenges that arise at the fishermen squatter camps who have flocked in large numbers around the lake. At the same time it appeared government was failing to properly monitor and control the fishing exports due to the lack of framework policies.
Speaking to this reporter late last year, Ngami fishing communities mentioned that they had long appealed to the ministry to suspend fishing at the lake due to a proliferation of fishermen squatter camps and the uncontrollable influx of pirate fishermen from all over the Southern African countries attracted by the booming fish stock in the lake.
The Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species (CITES) reflects no recorded fish exports from the Ngami region on its ten year time-line thus suggesting that all fish caught and crossed over from the Okavango region have been unrecorded trade.
This unreported and unrecorded illegal fishing trade is seen as another government failure to beneficiate the potentially lucrative trade. Botswana lacks the capacity to monitor and enforce compliance while neighboring countries appear unwilling or unable to carry out their regulatory responsibilities if these fish are allowed in those countries.
While this ban is in place, community members are already citing loss of businesses and failure to generate income. Since the lake started flooding after years of dryness, it has emerged as the biggest fishery in Ngamiland attracting fishermen from all over the region and in 2012, an estimation of more than 317 tonnes of fish were caught at the lake.
The Okavango River, which feeds Lake Ngami, is Botswana’s largest fishing resource, accounting for 80% of fish caught in Botswana. In 2007, the fishing sector contributed 0.002 percent to the GDP but indications are that the figure could and should be higher given the demand of fish, even for export purposes.