Potential Fishery Collapse in Lake Tanganyika

Lake Tanganyika, which falls under the administration of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Zambia, and Burundi, is the world’s second largest freshwater lake by volume and a haven for aquatic wildlife. The lake (map at left taken from here) is home to about 2,000 species of fish, most of which are found nowhere else in the world. Such diversity is possible both because of the lake’s size and antiquity; geologists believe Lake Tanganyika to be between 9 and 12 million years old. Eons of isolation have allowed a very distinctive ecosystem to form, similar to other large inland bodies of water like Lake Victoria and Lake Baikal. Lake Tanganyika also forms a vital pillar of human life in the area. The lake is a key protein source for millions of locals, and its fisheries directly employ hundreds of thousands of workers.

Overfishing in Lake Tanganyika is an old problem that seems to be worsening, with significant consequences for both fishermen and their quarry. The Lake Tanganyika Authority (LTA), a collaborative organization of the four countries that border the lake, warned recently that “use of destructive fishing gear and overfishing” threatens the very existence of the lake’s ecosystem. According to the LTA, current regulations limiting the size of the industry as well as the types of gear that can be used are widely ignored and ineffective. Would-be fishermen on the lake are legally required to buy licenses and submit to equipment inspections, but the resource constraints facing managers are severe. The Zambian fisheries office, for example, has only ten positions—four of which are vacant. The agency also relies on a single boat with an engine described as “unreliable.” Juvenile fish are reportedly a common sight in markets, a situation that is both a sign and a cause of fishery depletion. Activists in search of a relevant cautionary tale need look no further than Lake Victoria to the north, where hundreds of species have gone extinct due to overfishing and ecological invasion, especially of the voracious Nile perch.

The current depressed-state of Lake Tanganyika fisheries has exacted a human price. Many who once made a good living from the lake have abandoned fishing for farming, aided at times by outside organizations like the United Nations Development Program. However, those helped by these programs tend to be small-scale fishermen.  Industrial fishermen have responded to fish shortages as they have elsewhere: by working more intensively. Such intensification, in turn, this means even fewer fish will be available in future years, further diminishing the profits and lengthening work hours for everyone involved. To counter such tendencies, the LTA recommends “developing and implementing the fishing license process, improving the involvement of local communities in fisheries management, and promoting sustainable fisheries alternative livelihoods.” Although the LTA certainly does not need to be reminded, the main hurdle to sustainable fishing in Lake Tanganyika is a lack of money for enforcement, not a lack of economic or ecological know-how.

Overfishing is not the only crisis facing Lake Tanganyika, its fish, and the humans who depend on them. The lake is currently warmer than it has been at any time in the last 1,500 years (the entire period that water temperature estimates have been made), and some point to that as the main factor behind the decline of local fisheries. Sedimentation is also a problem, although efforts by local governments have begun to reduce the sedimentation rate in several localized areas.