“To have and to lose”
A paradox of access to fish in fishing communities

SPOTLIGHT
6 min readMar 18, 2021

Edith Gondwe

AMBROSE PATTULO FUND FOR ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES

“Koka!!!Koka!!!Koka!!!”

– These are the words you hear being screamed repeatedly on the shores of Lake Malawi, in Southern Africa. Literally translated to “pull, pull, pull,” this is the sound of fishermen pulling to shore a boat from the night’s harvest of fish. Standing at the beach are traders and community members, all waiting for an opportunity to buy some of the fish. Young, old, male, and female, everyone has their eyes fixed on this incoming boat. I feel a knot of excitement inside me — fish!!! You see, I love fish. Oh, I do!!! I could eat fish every day, all year around. I turn and look at the people on the shore, and imagine my surprise that they do not look as excited as I feel. Instead, one can see that they all seem to be holding their breath in trepid anticipation. But why?

“Achimwene, bwanji nanga nkhope kusasangalala?” (“Excuse me sir, why do you look worried?”), I ask one of the men standing close to me. In a worried voice, this man answers that they are not sure if they will be able to buy the fish. He goes on to explain to me that to access fish is a problem, because fish trading starts right before the boats reach the shore. In fact, he goes on to say, the fish is sold about six times by the time it arrives at the shore. Here, the fish is further sold to more people before the local processors or consumers have access to the fish. But how can this be true? It sure does sound unbelievable.

The story that follows is that of “organized” trade, where you have to be part of an inner circle to access fish. Sadly, this story continues to describe how, for female fish traders, trading sex for fish is nearly their only option to be able to buy the fish. Male fishers prey on the desperation of the female traders, trading sexual favors for access to buy fish. Sad, just sad, it is.

I sit down to talk more to the gentlemen, all the while, my heart is racing. In my head, I am already thinking how the issue of environmental degradation of the lake, due to overfishing and climate change, trickles all the way down to the humans that depend on these resources. You see, it is easy to use these big words of “exploited resources,” “overfishing,” and “climate change” to easily get the attention of donor communities and public funding. But what does it mean to the average person who is living through the consequences of overfishing and poor trade management day after day? Of course, it is an accepted phenomenon that for countries like Malawi, where fish represent their main source of protein, the impacts named above are very real. Yes, the scientific evidence itself is compelling and surely warrants attention. But for today, let us turn and look at these people by the shore awaiting their chance to buy fish.

When we say fish is the most affordable animal protein source, there is a context we must attach to this explanation. The most abundant fish species caught in Malawi are small pelagic fish, called Usipa. These fish grow to an average length of 10 to 20 cm, and are often sold in heaps, either fresh or processed (i.e., sun dried or parboiled). The reason why fish are accessible to most poor Malawian households (60% of whom survive on less than one dollar per day) is because of its divisibility. Imagine an average family of five people. If they have a budget of 75 cents to buy meat, it becomes quite difficult and expensive to divide chicken or beef in a way that each family member gets a fair portion. Small fish become the answer to this problem. Furthermore, since small fish are sold in small heaps, it becomes the cheapest and most valuable option for many families.

In my attempt to try and understand the reasons for the concerned faces at the shore, another explanation is offered to me. Due to a high demand for fish in the cities, fish traders charge higher prices for the fish. Ultimately, making the fish unaffordable to people in the coastal fishing communities. They explain to me that small fish used to be regarded as a poor man’s food, with the wealthier, urban dwellers preferring to eat meat and chicken every day. However, recent trends of health consciousness have altered the eating habits of most urban dwellers. Oh yes, young and old urban dwellers are now seeking fish, indigenous vegetables, and poultry to make up the majority of their health-centric diet. While this is a good thing for traders, as it means increased demand from high-end earners, it is a calamity for the fishing communities. Since traders know there is demand in urban areas, they drive up the price to meet this demand. This leaves people in the community, living on one dollar per day, to compete with more affluent communities for the same resource — fish. It sounds like a joke, but alas, fish is at times more expensive at the shores near where they were caught than in the cities. These poor people in the community must pay the opportunity cost for the fish to be sold to them and not to be taken to urban areas where traders are guaranteed sales at higher prices.

What does this mean then to us, my dear learned friends, who sit down year after year to come up with “conservation projects,” “rehabilitation projects,” and/or “empowerment projects” to implement in these fishing communities? Do we truly understand what fish mean to these people? You see, there is a difference in throwing around words on the importance of fish to fishing communities and creating true change. Pause. Think. Food. The basic need of every human to survive. That is what we are talking about. What can we do to translate our complex projects and programs so that households in fishing communities like that in our story have access to the very protein and micronutrients they require to have and maintain a healthy lifestyle? What can we do to make sure that children growing up in these communities do not fall victim to the triple burden of malnutrition?

What do we do then, you ask? To be honest, that is something I am still struggling to answer as well. I have come to realize that to understand the impacts of the harmful environmental practices being implemented in the fisheries sector, we need to prioritize understanding the impact on the human communities that rely on this vital resource. As a researcher with limited understanding of the unique situation that these fishing communities are reliant on, I seek to answer that question through my attempt at carrying out food and nutrition security research in the context of a fisheries sector that is marred by many environmental challenges. I can only hope that my answers are practical and useful, to help ensure fish have a place on the plates of households in these fishing communities.

My name is Edith Gondwe, a second year PhD student in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. My research areas of interest are on the linkages of fish and food and nutrition security, livelihood analysis, governance systems, gender dynamics and value chains in fisheries systems, with a special interest in small scale fisheries. I am advised by Dr. Abigail Bennett. My planned graduate research for my thesis is set to investigate relationships of capital assets and food security; and intrahousehold bargaining power on nutrition security in small scale fishing households in Malawi.
My motivation to apply for the Pattullo Fellowship, which focuses on environmental issues, was because of my research interest on understanding food and nutrition security in fishing households and its linkages to environmental issues that surround the fishery systems. As I highlight in my literary piece, titled “To have and to lose”: A paradox of access to fish in fishing communities, environmental issues such as overfishing adversely affects the livelihoods of people in fishing communities, leading to high prevalence rates of malnutrition, especially among vulnerable groups (under five children and pregnant women). Further on, understanding the link of conservation programs in fishery systems and impact on livelihoods of communities is most likely to result in more sustainable outcomes.

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SPOTLIGHT

Spotlight Magazine is the official student-run annual publication from Michigan State University’s Fish and Wildlife graduate students.