Madvuto James (real name withheld) couldn’t help but notice what looked like a build up of ice along the shore of the Lake Malawi during one of his morning walks.
When he got closer Monday morning, he realized it wasn’t ice. Hundreds of dead fish floating belly up lined the shore near Livingstonia Beach in Salima.
“I didn’t know what to think,” said the 23-year-old Salima resident. “I thought something had been spilled or there was some kind of disease going around.”
The problem isn’t only in Salima. People have been reporting dead or dying fish along the shoreline in Mangochi and as far north as Nkhatabay for weeks.
Thousands were seen listlessly floating or struggling to swim on their side downstream in the Lake Malawi shoreline Monday.
According to Malawi’s Department of Fisheries in the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development, dying of the fish locally known as “chambo” and “usipa” is normal for this time of the year.
Salima is the central-most extent of the chambo and usipa’s range, said ministry spokesperson. When temperatures drop they become physiologically stressed and many die.
“They die in the winter due to cold stress and they show up on shore,” she said.
He said the massive winter mortality rate is pretty common as the fish is a warm water species. Yet, it’s not uncommon to have similar instances happen throughout the summer with temperature fluctuations.
There shouldn’t be a cause for concern, said the spokesperson, as the fish will eventually deteriorate, wash back into the lake and be eaten by wildlife.
He advised people to keep away from any dying or rotting fish.
“It’s just a shame how they are dying right in front of me here, suffering,” James said, pointing to a group of fish wedged beside a large rock near a boat dock.
“The ones that are alive are wiggling their tails to try and swim back out again, but they’re too weak.”
He said he watched the fish come down the shore for about three hours Monday and said the ones that were still alive didn’t last long — about 25 minutes, he estimated.
Another local angler, John Yona, said he wasn’t buying the ministry’s explanation and that he’s reconsidering eating the fish he catches from the lake.
“I think for a while I’ll be discouraged. I’ve just never seen so many like this before,” he said.
He continued by suspecting foul-play from the Tanzanian side of the lake due to the current tension and wrangle for the lake.
“I don’t understand why the government would decide to put as in the dark over this issue as if we are all kids, our forefathers died here and we have never seen anything like this before. We need the government to assure us of our safety because here in the lake shore districts, fish is our only source of income and food.”
The two countries have long been at loggerheads over their frontier on the lake where each of the impoverished nations hopes to find oil.
Malawi claims ownership of the entire northern part of the lake under an 1890 agreement, while Tanzania disputes this, insisting part of the lake falls within its borders.
The contentious part is a largely undeveloped swathe of the lake, where Malawi has awarded a licence to British firm Surestream to explore for oil in the northeastern waters near Tanzania.
The 29 600km² body of water is Africa’s third-largest freshwater lake and lies in the Great Lakes system stretching along the East African Rift.