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Fishing The Zambezi

The parrotfish run – a family affair

Gill Staden, eTN  Jun 24, 2010

(eTN) At this time of year, millions of fish from the flood plains get caught up in the main stream of the Zambezi and swim downstream for miles. When they pass through the rapids, the fishing baskets wait throughout the night. In the mornings, the jubilant fishermen go out in their makoras to empty the baskets and prepare for the next night’s catch.

We went to join in the bonanza harvest early one cold morning. Taking a motorized "rubber duck," we set off into the rapids near Royal Chundu to check the fishermen and their catch for that day. Our first section of river was upstream through a channel. The water was running so fast that we hardly made headway. To understand the strength of the fishermen in the makoras, you have to believe that they were overtaking us!

Getting into the main channel, the river was extremely choppy, waves splashing over the sides of the boat. The mist lay thick on the river, the birds were watching the water from above in the treetops. It was very cold... and now I had wet feet. Holding on to the sides of the dinghy, I felt quite relaxed but knew that I could not have been in a makora – those things are made for experts; even sitting in them is a skill.

We made our way over to a channel to see the baskets being taken out of the river. The fishermen tie a strong rope between two poles and, on this, they secure their baskets. One by one the baskets are removed and put into the makora. When they boat is full of baskets, they are taken to an island and emptied.

We followed them onto the island to have a look. The baskets were emptied into the bottom of the makora, some fish still wriggling. The fish were all sorts of shapes and sizes, but the parrotfish was clearly seen from its bright red and yellow patches.

We found tigerfish, barbel, yellow fish, minnows, churchills, bottlefish, bulldogs, and robbers, as well as the parrotfish. What strange names these fish have. I am not a fisherman so it was all new to me. I just looked on in awe that there are so many different kinds of fish in the river. According to the books, there are over 60 species along this stretch of the Zambezi.

Having watched them load up their boats and leave for the mainland, we headed home, too, getting wet again but looking forward to a hot cup of coffee and to dry out the socks and shoes.

Over coffee, we discussed the habits of the parrotfish, which still leaves me confused. But this is what we decided with some logical reasoning. I am quite happy to be told that I am wrong so please let me know.

Millions of parrotfish come down the river at this time of year – between June and August. They are bottom-feeders and not strong swimmers like the tigerfish. They do not return upstream later in the year – as the salmon does, for example. So, the fish go downstream and stay there. Many parrotfish remain in the papyrus beds upstream, and it is these that breed the following year. The ones that go downstream either find new breeding grounds or don’t breed.

I decided that the fish must get caught up in the whirl of water as it leaves the floodplains and rushes downstream. What did confuse us is that the fish only seem to come downstream on dark nights when there is no moon. They also like it when it is cold. I can’t work out why this could be. Has anyone got any ideas?

The fishermen all use locally-made baskets. The main structure is made out of reeds, which are tied together with rope made from the palm tree leaves. The basket is given strength around the top rim by using branches from the mopane tree. It is all very ingenious. Of course, their method of catching the fish using baskets is totally sustainable as they catch only a small proportion of those that pass through the channels. Let us hope that the future does not bode ill for the fish and big commercial netting operations do not take over.

Each channel is owned by a separate family – this is decided between themselves, and it never creates any in-fighting. The bounty is good for them all. On the mainland, during the next few months, the villages set up their stalls – they sell everything from the fish to sweet potatoes, from toothpaste to second-hand clothes. For two months, everyone has fun – we saw the drum of chibuku being carried to the river’s edge as we left.

Most of the fish is dried, but the parrotfish is special in that it is a source of cooking fat, which can last the year through, if it is processed properly. The fish is cut open and in the belly is a lump of fat. A pot is put on the fire with reeds across the rim, and the fat is laid on the reeds. As the pot gets hot, the fat melts and drips into the pot below. SK, our guide, said that his father collects about 20 liters of oil this way, and he uses it all year for his cooking.

As soon as the parrotfish run starts, the news spreads to Livingstone. The taxis start to arrive to buy the dried fish and take it back to the market. We met one taxi, a complete wreck of a car, being pushed along the rocky road – it did eventually get started, but one wonders for how long.

This to me is what Africa is about. It is a completely sustainable harvest; the people have been doing it for generations. It is fun for all and of great economic value to the villagers there. Let’s hope it stays that way.

The parrotfish run – a family affair
Photo by Gill Staden

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