Reel in Botswana’s wild west

In 2010 the Tahal group presented a bold idea to the Botswana ministry of agriculture – that the landlocked semi-desert country develop a fishing industry.

Part of the 420-million cubic metres of water that could be taken from the Zambezi as part of the country’s riparian rights would be used for a project that would include, among other things, an aquaculture industry that would export about 13 000 tonnes of fish a year.

The idea that Botswana would become a major exporter of fish products was beyond the imagination of those in the ministry and the idea was canned. Now, without a litre of water being lifted from the Zambezi and with little investment, Botswana is becoming a significant exporter of unknown quantities of tilapia and catfish to water-rich countries such as Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Next month the 2015 fishing season will begin again on Lake Ngami.

The Congo and Zambezi rivers were once considered an important source of fish for local people but, say several environmental specialists in Botswana, poor management of fish stocks and rising populations have resulted in there being not enough fish for residents of these countries.

Lake Ngami is a seasonal body of water filled by the Taughe River, which is part of the Okavango system. When it comes back to life, consumers, particularly those in urban areas, are delighted by the sudden influx of relatively cheap fish.

But since last year fishermen found they could get better prices from the hundreds of Zambian and Congolese “salters”, who gut and salt fish. They live in tents next to the lake. In 2014 there were 11 camps with a population of about 1?000 people surrounding the lake, say environmentalists working on conservation measures for Lake Ngami.

About 300 Batswana get permits to fish. A medium-sized fish costs about three pulas at the lake, but when sold in Gaborone it sells for up to 10 pulas. The dried and salted fish sold in Lubumbashi can treble in price, according to Neo Ntshwabi. She drives to the DRC four times a year and says she sells 6 000 fish a trip at 27 pulas a fish. Ntshwabi would thus bring home a gross income of about $72 000 a year, which, after costs, is enough to pay for a home for her and her two children.

But, according to Botswana Unified Revenue Service (Burs) figures, only 300 tonnes of fish were exported to Zambia and on to Katanga in the DRC in the period up to November 2014 at a value of less than a million pulas.

Either Burs is not receiving the correct value and volume figures for fish leaving the country, or the 16-wheel trucks full of fish that leave Maun during the fishing season, in addition to the 1 000 Zambian and Congolese, are making a huge loss.

The Ngamiland fishery has become a lawless “wild west” and the government should act before the next fishing season begins at the end of this month.

The Lake Ngami fishery may become unsustainable because the lake could one day disappear, as it did in the 1965-1966 drought. But it will also be unsustainable if the rate of extraction of fish is not sufficiently controlled. If the lake is overfished there is a potential danger to the ecology should the fishermen and salters shift from Lake Ngami to the rest of the Okavango ecosystem.

Overfishing there could harm the economy of the country as the Okavango, a world heritage site, is Botswana’s main tourist destination.

Immigration officials should check whether the Zambians and Congolese are in the country legally and Burs needs to record the real volume and value of fish sold locally and leaving Botswana. Fisheries officials need to better police the number of fishermen, monitor the size of their nets and ensure that the number of fishermen per licence is adhered to.

These are the views of Professor Roman Grynberg and not necessarily those of any institution with which he may be affiliated. For transparency purposes, Neo Ntshwabi is a cousin of his wife, Doris Shalie Grynberg.

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