Lake Hawassa disturbed

The routine is a familiar one at Lake Hawassa. At around six o’clock every morning, people line the shore of the lake, watching as the fishing boats return. The faces of the fishermen coming back to shore are tired after a long night’s work, but they also bear disappointment. Most days start this way – with locals counting the cost of another poor haul. The problem isn’t immediately obvious - the lake swarms with tilapia and catfish and fishing in the lake has grown massively in the last 30 years.

In the early 1980s, there were fewer than 20 registered fishermen earning a living from the lake; this grew to more than 100 in the 90s and the number has stayed high, alongside many more who are unregistered. Even more dramatic is the rise in the average number of fish caught during the same period – during the early 80s, the catch was below 200 nets per day. Today it ranges between 1,000 and 1,500. 600 to 700 tonnes are landed per year and therein lies the problem – sustained over-fishing is having a devastating impact on supplies.

One of the best indicators of the problem is the tilapia catch – 20 years ago, tilapia accounted for 25 to 30 fish caught per net. Today, that number has dropped to five per net. “Before, we used to go out to the lake with 40 nets on each boat. We would come back with all the nets full. Now we’re lucky if we’re able to fill five nets,” said Zelalem, a young fisherman, struggling to support his family. Zelalem is not alone. Many young men like him depend on the fish caught every day, but nowadays, it’s not uncommon for the total catch among all the boats on the lake to be no more than 500 fish, well short of the number needed to support all those reliant on the lake and its fish.

It’s not just fishermen who are affected – the many small restaurants on the shores of Lake Hawassa are also suffering. On one side of the lake alone, there are more than 25, selling fresh fish in just about every way imaginable – raw, fried or in soup. “It’s a huge problem we’re facing: Since the catch has fallen we haven’t been able to serve as many customers. Sometimes, we run out of fish and we have to send customers away. We’ve had to start serving other types of food, even though most people come for fish,” said Senayit, who has run her lakeside restaurant for more than six years.

Fishermen say things got really bad a year and a half ago. Before then, tilapia stocks were in decline, but now, they say, koroso (catfish) is also more scarce. “We started a trend of catching the very small catfish, so restaurants can use them in soups that have become famous in the area. We didn’t foresee the consequence of that. Nobody did. And now we are in this difficult situation,” said a frustrated fisherman.

Overfishing is not the only problem affecting Lake Hawassa. Even though Hawassa is one of Ethiopia’s cleanest cities, waste pollution is an issue. The lakeside restaurants are popular with locals and tourists and waste has an impact on water quality. Locals also believe waste from nearby hospitals is a factor. There are allegations of toxic waste dumping, which many people suspect is affecting the lake. The problem is not confined to Lake Hawassa – catfish has overtaken tilapia as the most populous species in Ziway, reversing a long-term trend. Fish diversity at Abiyata is under threat from a big increase in water abstraction, high silt levels and changes in the chemical balance of the water.

The authorities at Hawassa have started taking steps to tackle the problem – restrictions have been placed on the size of nets that fishermen can use and on the size of landing areas. Many people in the area will be watching closely to see whether these measures have an effect. Fishermen like Zelalem and restaurateurs like Senayit will have a particular interest, as their futures may well depend on it.