Editorial Comment: Let’s consolidate fisheries value chain Ministry of Lands, Agriculture, Fisheries, Water and Rural Development has done much of the preparation and has started the rapid expansion of the fisheries. 

MAJOR investment for the Second Republic has been the commissioning of major dams, first the completion of dams started and halted some years ago and then the planning, contracting and building of new dams, with several in progress at any one point and as each one is finished the funds are transferred to building a new one.

The prime aim has been to impound water for irrigation, essential for the future food production in Zimbabwe both crops and livestock. 

Climate change is biting with more frequent droughts and irregular rains, such as long mid-season dry spells and late starts to seasons, and while better farming techniques and more research on breeding more suitable varieties all help, these have to be backed by full and supplementary irrigation.

At the same time we have the Presidential Borehole Programme, a five-year investment to drill a borehole in every one of the 35 000 villages, plus one for every school or school complex, plus one for every clinic. 

This had to be expanded to include some urban areas, particularly Harare where water treatment and water management is particularly bad.

But the village boreholes are just the centre of a development for each village, which besides water for household use includes a horticulture garden of around 1ha and a pond for fish and possibly water fowl. Usefully the Government water departments are in the same Ministry as agriculture and rural development, so seamless combination policies for both irrigation and rural village water use can be crafted and implemented.

It just needs to involve experts and technicians in different rooms of the same complex.

As part of this development, and seamless integration of what can be seen as “farming” in its widest scope, fisheries were included in the same ministry near the beginning of the Second Republic. 

These were maintaining what was already there, centred on the huge fishery in Lake Kariba and at least monitoring what was happening in the other lakes while breeding research was enhanced.

Now the Ministry of Lands, Agriculture, Fisheries, Water and Rural Development has done much of the preparation and has started the rapid expansion of the fisheries. 

Vast numbers of fingerlings have been bred of species suitable for dams in different parts of the country and in village fish ponds and are being distributed and released. Basic training has been started from village level upwards, along with more advanced training for those who will be moving into commercial fisheries on the larger lakes. 

The Ministry has had the good sense to bring in the private sector to help here, since that sector has built up the sort of investment required for a high-quality product that is totally safe.

Fresh fish have a very short shelf life, about a day at best. This is not that serious a problem for the village fish ponds, at least in their early stages, since the fish will largely be caught and eaten within the community on the day they are caught. 

Much the same course can be followed within communities living near lake shores, where again people are largely fishing for the communities and just providing a more varied and better diet.

But as we move into commercial fishing, where fish caught in those huge dams now straddling Masvingo Province are to be sold in the major cities and other similar major fisheries, we need to move upscale in skills and investment. 

We get a clue from the major fisheries on Lake Kariba, where basically the maximum sustainable catch has been allocated to licence holders, with consultation between Zambian and Zimbabwean authorities to split the resource fairly and have similar rules on both sides of the border.

A large chunk of that catch is dried, especially the kapenta harvest. This is a very effective way of preserving fish, and has been used for thousands of years right since the start of agriculture, although as fish get larger a fair amount of additional processing is required, largely to make sure the fish are properly gutted and are either opened up thin and flat or even filleted since the drying has to be rapid, especially in our climate. 

We do not have the cold drying of the old Atlantic cod fisheries.

The advantage of drying is that it does not need expensive equipment, but the drying racks and the skills required to make sure it is done properly need to be in place. 

But for thousands of years it was the main way of preserving fish and properly dried and well dried fish have a very long shelf life, sometimes measured in years.

A second curing technique has been used, salting fish, but this is only really possible where there are large quantities of cheap salt, usually mineral salt although some tropical sea salt is also used. 

Mineral salts have, regrettably, not been found in Zimbabwe and we have to import all our salt, which pushes up prices, but some of the luxury salted products could be cured in the country.

Both dried fish, stockfish, and salted fish need cooking techniques that start with long soaking, so whipping up a meal of dried or salted fish is not a quick process. But again households have been coping for thousands of years so the techniques are known.

For a little over a couple of hundred years refrigeration has been in use, starting off with blocks of ice harvested in northern latitudes during winter and preserved but quickly moving into artificial refrigeration, as is used in Zimbabwe. 

So long as the cold chain at the required minimum temperature is preserved from fishery to stove, this does keep fish fresh and allows that near instant cooking of fresh fish that were brought from water to stove in less than a day.

Refrigeration and cold chains will obviously have their place, and not just at Kariba. Something like the dairy cold chains, although colder, will be needed and we have developed logistics to get product to central collection cold points. So we can probably have a mixed market of fresh, dried and frozen fish.

There are other factors. The whole farming ministry will have to make sure that reasonable ecologies are created in water bodies, from small to large, and cope with the major fluctuations in dam levels over a year. 

There will also have to be environmental standards enforced. For example Lake Chivero is close to Harare, but we would bet a lot of people are dubious about eating anything from that filthy lake, with at times dead fish floating on the surface. 

The joy of fisheries is to use the water we pump and impound for many purposes. The same dam can support fish and irrigate land, so we get a double return, two lots of food, but it does require careful management and careful training, and a decent spread of suitable expertise dealing with all the factors so we maximise yields.

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