The World Bank/WBI’s CBNRM Initiative

Case Received: February 2, 1998

Author: Richard Bell

Tel: +44 926 496121

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"It is for us fishermen to decide whether we want to be poor for a few years or to be poor for ever" Quoted from an interview with a Lake Malombe fisherman, 1993


The case study refers to the development since 1992 of an ongoing community-based fisheries management programme on Lake Malombe in the Southern Region of Malawi. The programme was developed by the Malawi Department of Fisheries with support from the GTZ-funded Malawi-Germany Fisheries and Aquaculture Development Project, MAGFAD, and the UNDP 5th Country Programme.

The author assisted with the design of the programme during 1993 and has visited the area in 1996 and 1998 to enable him to monitor the progress of the programme.


Lake Malombe is a shallow lake of about 450 km2, located on the floor of the rift valley just to the south of the much larger Lake Malawi. The outlet of Lake Malawi, the Shire river flows through Lake Malombe. The area has experienced large fluctuations in climate over the millenia. During dry phases, Lake Malombe and the Shire River have dried up. Lake Malombe appears to have been dry for several hundred years prior to the mid-19th century and its floor was cultivated. When the lake refilled early in this century, much of it was filled with aquatic vegetation and the shores were lined with marshes. The sandy beaches now used as landings and for beach seining are artefacts, having been cleared for the purpose. Similarly, the aquatic vegetation has only disappeared within the last thirty years, possibly as a result of the introduction of open-water seines.

Lake Malombe is connected by the short channel of the Shire to Lake Malawi. As such it shares some of the unique characteristics of the larger lake’s aquatic ecology, including a high level of fish biodiversity, genetic plasticity and endemism. However, it differs in some important respects, in that Lake Malombe is shallow, turbid and nutrient-rich, with shelving vegetated shores without the many rock outcrops so characteristic of Lake Malawi. Fish diversity is lower in Lake Malombe but biomasses and productivity are higher. In addition, Lake Malombe does not have the aesthetic appeal and tourism potential of Lake Malawi.

Lake Malombe supports a highly productive fishery based on medium sized, (chambo), and small, (kambuzi), cichlids. The bulk of the catch is brought in by large beach-seine nets, (kambuzi seines, wogo), or by boat-operated open water purse seines, (nkacha nets). Beach seines were introduced to Lake Malombe before the Second World War. As with farm land, the act of clearing a beach for seining conferred hereditary rights to the land to the individuals who carried out the clearing, subject to the overall authority of the village headman and chief. Open water seines, (nkacha), were introduced to Lake Malombe in the 1960s and rapidly increased in number.

By the late 1980s, the build up of gear and fishing effort had led to a classic trend in fish catches. Initially, catches had risen to a peak, following which they had declined rapidly, with the virtual disappearance of the medium-sized species, (chambo), from the catch and progressively smaller fish of the small cichlid group, (kambuzi), being caught as mesh sizes were reduced, ultimately to mosquito netting in some cases.

The area surrounding Lake Malombe is densely settled by a population who are primarily Moslem Yao who immigrated into the area in the 19th century. However, some Christian Chewa villages remain representing the previously dominant ethnic group in the area. The land surrounding Lake Malombe falls into the areas of two Yao Traditional Authorities or Chiefs, Chief Mponda and Chief Chowe.

The population around Lake Malombe are primarily farmers. However, an important minority is involved in the fishing industry, either as gear-owning entrepreneurs, as crew members operating fishing gear or as fish processors and traders. Many of those involved in fishing are also farmers; fishing fulfils an important role in that its provides income at the start of the farming season to purchase inputs and fertiliser.

Following the partial collapse of the fishery in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Department of Fisheries of the Malawi Government recognised that remedial action was required. As a result of research and monitoring co-ordinated by the Fisheries Research Station at Monkey Bay, a number of draft regulations were developed in 1992 by the government intended to rehabilitate the fishery on Lake Malombe. These included:

  1. A minimum mesh size of 25 mm, (1 inch), for seine nets on Lake Malombe;
  2. Enforcement of a closed season on Lake Malombe;
  3. Banning of the use of beach seines on Lake Malombe.

The 1992 decision to promulgate these regulations corresponded with a period of political transition in Malawi, culminating in the change of government in 1993. The government therefore felt itself unable simply to enforce the proposed regulations and decided on an approach based on community participation in the management of the fishery. This approach was assisted by the GTZ-supported Malawi-Germany Fisheries and Aquaculture Development project, MAGFAD.

In early 1993, the author worked as a consultant on the development of a community-based management programme for the Lake Malombe fishery together with a Malawian Fisheries officer as a counterpart, and other Fisheries Department staff. A design for the programme with an investment plan was submitted to the Fisheries Department in June 1993. This programme was subsequently implemented by the Fisheries Department with assistance from MAGFAD and UNDP.

The author revisited the area in late 1996 and in early 1998 to follow up on the progress of the programme which appears to be one of the unsung success stories of Community-Based Natural Resource Management in the southern African region.


The design phase was initiated with consultations with the fishing community, (gear owners, crew and traders), around Lake Malombe. As a result of numerous interviews and group discussions, a number of points became clear:

The fishery was effectively controlled by the entrepreneurial gear owners, who made the decisions on when and where to fish and on details of gear including mesh size;

There was remarkable uniformity among the hundreds of fishermen around the lake on the nature of the problem and corrective measures.

The fishermen had a clear understanding of the nature of the problem and how to solve it; their understanding was that the mesh size should be increased and that the number of seine nets should be reduced;

However, their position differed from that of the Fisheries Department in that they would agree to a minimum mesh size of 19 mm, (3/4 inches), but not to 25 mm, (1 inch). There was consensus that the latter mesh size would be too damaging economically. They also argued that open water seines should be reduced rather than beach seines, since the former covered the whole lake while the latter covered only small parts of it.

The reason why they did not put these solutions into practice was that no social mechanism existed to ensure that all or most fishermen acted in unison; none was willing to put into effect the necessary restrictions on his own;

They also argued in favour of some form of financial support for the replacement of the undersized sections of their nets;

They suggested the formation of committees, which came to be known as beach-village committees, (BVCs), as a means of co-ordinating action around the lake. They proposed a membership of beach owners and gear owners under the chairmanship of the village headman.

Following the consultations with the fishing community, the author and his counterpart reported to the Department of Fisheries that the fishermen were unwilling to comply with the proposed regulations:

They would not agree to increase mesh sizes to 25 mm, but would agree to 19 mm if they were given some form of financial assistance;

They would not agree to banning of beach seines from the lake, on the grounds that the beach seines only affect a small proportion of the lake’s surface.

The initial response of the Fisheries Department was that the attitude of the fishermen was unacceptable on the grounds that the 19 mm mesh was below the size limit that would allow reproduction of the kambuzi group of cichlids.

To resolve this impasse, a 2-day workshop was held involving the Ministry of Forestry and Natural Resources, the Department of Fisheries, (management and research staff), and MAGFAD personnel. In the event, the workshop failed to resolve the impasse, since the Fisheries Department was unwilling to compromise on the mesh size regulation. In the closing minutes of the workshop, however, it was agreed that the senior officers of the Fisheries Department would meet with representative of the fishing community and discuss the issues with them. The consultants were mandated to organise the meetings through the chiefs.

Three public meetings were held involving fishermen, headmen, chiefs and senior government officials. The meetings were facilitated by the Community Development Assistants in the area. Each meeting was attended by at least 200 fishermen.

The public meetings resulted in a clear consensus among the fishing community in line with the message derived from the initial consultations, i.e. that they would not agree either to the 25 mm mesh limit or to banning of beach seines. However, they would accept a 19 mm limit and the enforcement of the closed season; to implement these decisions, beach village committees would be formed with assistance from the Fisheries Department.

At a round-up meeting held by the Director of Fisheries with Fisheries Department personnel and the consultants following the public meetings, it was agreed that the Department would compromise over the regulations and that the consultants should continue to design the details of the programme on this basis.

The main features of the programme were:

Formation of beach village committees through training of the Fisheries Assistants and fishermen by the Department of Community Development;

Adopting as a long term goal the formation of a Lake Malombe Fishermens’ Association, LMFA, to provide co-ordination between BVCs;

Modification of policy and legislation to transfer control over the resource to the LMFA and BVCs;

Financial assistance for the modification of nets to agreed specifications; this was eventually provided in the form of loans;

Assistance by Department of Fisheries in law enforcement at the request of BVCs to ensure compliance.


The programme was initiated in late 1993. Within the following year, the training programme by the Department of Community Development of Fisheries Assistants and Fishermen had been carried out and BVCs formed in most of the villages around Lake Malombe;

By early 1996, the majority of undersized mesh nets had been replaced by 19 mm mesh with loan assistance from MAGFAD.

At the same time a high level of compliance with the closed season had been observed.

By late 1996, catches and mean fish sizes in the catches had begun to increase;

In late 1996, the author attended BVC meetings at which fishermen were advocating creation of no-fishing zones in the lake, of adjusting the closed season to bring it into phase with the kambuzi breeding season, and were discussing the possibility of closing fishing on Lake Malombe all-together for a 2-year period.

Steps had been taken in the formation of the Lake Malombe Fishermens’ Association and in amending the relevant legislation.


The key to the success of this programme was the willingness of the Department of Fisheries to compromise over the regulations. Until that moment, the programme was at an impasse.

Recognition that the resource users, (fishermen), possessed a clear understanding of the problem and the potential solutions. Adoption of the solutions was made possible by:

The Fisheries Department’s recognition of the validity of the technical understanding possessed by the fishing community;

The Fisheries Department adopting a role that facilitated the development of community-based regulatory mechanisms as opposed to its traditional state regulatory role;

MAGFAD making available credit for the replacement of nets.