The Sikunga Conservancy patrol boat makes fast on the bank of a Zambezi river channel and the fish guards bring in an illegal fishing net. The net was strung out in the channel the night before, probably by Zambian fishermen who sell dried fish as far afield as the Congo.
Overlooking the river from the Island View Lodge, Riaan van Niekerk, the lodge owner, says the conservancy fish guards are a real asset. Back in 2009 when he bought the lodge, the channel – which is a 7 kilometre loop off of the Zambezi river and about 100 metres wide – “was full of nets”. As soon as the sport anglers came in at dusk, the illegal fishers would start putting out nets. Fish stocks were plummeting and fish getting smaller, which was very bad for business.
While van Niekerk was talking about the tourism potential of the river and the island across from the lodge, conservancy manager Steven Muyangwa was visiting the nearby fishing camp, to ask the owner to snap the culprits with his cell phone when they returned to look for their net. The fish guards often arrest illegal fishermen, although it can be a dangerous business. The guards are not armed and the poachers sometimes carry guns. The conservancy relies upon help from the police and the Ministry of Fisheries to make arrests.
Sport fishing is big business, says van Niekerk. Most of the anglers come from South Africa, with others coming from Germany and Botswana. The attraction is the Tiger Fish found in the Zambezi, a fish as fierce as its name and hard to land. The lodge provides a mooring for the conservancy boat and helps out with fuel. Two boats were donated to Sikunga Conservancy, one by the MCA and one by the local angling club.
Everybody works together to preserve fish stocks and prevent illegal fishing. The lodge was built in 1996, before Sikunga Conservancy was formed in 2004, and did not have to apply for permission to build from the conservancy. Now a joint venture agreement is being negotiated between them, with regular payments to Sikunga from the lodge, which stands to benefit from the fish guard patrols.
The traditional authority is fully behind the fish guard idea. The Induna Silalo, which means area chief, was Leonard Masangu. He is retired now, due to poor eyesight, but was visiting the lodge with the conservancy manager when the illegal net was brought in. In the old days, he said, nets were made of reeds and grass. They were called six inch nets and they caught large fish, mostly Tilapia.
“The big challenge is Zambia,” says the Induna, but he admits that the problem was just as great on the Namibian side of the river before independence. Dragnets were being used with a small mesh, he says, catching smaller fish before they could breed. One village may have as many as five nets, and there were ten villages fishing. “Imagine the impact,” he says.
Dr Clinton Hay is a fisheries expert working with the Namibia Nature Foundation in Katima Mulilo. He reports that catch rates in the Mahango Park area in the Kavango River are five times higher than outside the Park area, showing that fishery protection makes a big difference. With fishery protection channels, conservancies are starting to provide the same level of protection as national parks.
The conservancy was a brilliant idea says the Induna, who also fully supports the Ministry of Fisheries, which regulates fishing gear and areas where fishing is allowed. The seven kilometre channel was first proposed as a reserve channel in 2007 with support from the Namibia Nature Foundation. At first it was hard to convince the locals, says the Induna, who used his authority to hold meetings where the Ministry could explain the idea.
Now limited fishing is allowed in the channel, which is otherwise reserved for sport fishing, and fish stocks have started to recover. Eventually the local fishermen will benefit from better catches, because the fish will have space to breed. Income to the conservancy from the lodge is another incentive to keep the channel free.
Dr Hay is enthusiastic about the potential of protection channels. Other communities in the area have asked for similar channels to be protected, and there are plans to link up with communities on the Zambian side of the river. That could have a huge impact, as most of the illegal nets are laid by Zambians. As illegal fishing is stamped out and fish stocks recover, communities stand to gain from income derived from lodges and sport angling, income that may distributed in cash or spent on community benefits. Improved fish stocks will also mean more fish for home consumption.
Does the Induna eat fish? “Too much,” he replies, but not Squeaker. Why not? The Induna gives a big grin and says “Because it is ugly!”