For all of her adult life Judith Moyo, 37, has survived by selling fish.
She lays her wares outside a municipality beer hall in Bulawayo where fish remains cheaper than meat for many in working-class townships.
Moyo sells fresh bream and dried kapenta but she is increasingly worried that she is no longer getting the fish supplies as regularly as she used to.
“Our suppliers simply tell that the catch is no longer a bountiful as before,” she said.
Some 250 miles to the north in Binga, fisherman Jaha Njobvu, 54, says he knows who’s responsible: poachers.
“We are living with people who appear bent on destroying our heritage,” said Njobvu, who is part of one of many licensed fishing cooperatives. “Fish poaching has become a problem here.”
Binga lies along the Zambezi River, a transboundary watercourse shared by eight countries at the southern tip of Africa. Sharing resources such as fish from this natural water frontier has become a headache for the governments involved. As over-fishing has depleted waterways in other areas, more poachers are encroaching on Zimbabwe.
Zimbabweans who travel from other parts of the country have also been accused of poaching. Experts say the criminals have reversed breeding efforts that were set up as far back as the 1990s.
“There are areas where breeding areas have been created because of our awareness of the importance of conservation, but some people are frustrating our efforts,” Njobvu said.
The African Wildlife Foundation says it manages the river's resources through local community engagement combined with conservation efforts. But those efforts aren't enough for people like Nhlalo Gaduza, chairman of a fishing cooperative. It's impossible to sustain historic catch levels when competing with poachers, he said.
“In the past we saw fish in the water as an infinite thing, but with the increase of the people working in the water, we have become aware of this sad reality,” Gaduza said.
The wildlife foundation says over-fishing and fish poaching have been spurred by Africa’s growing appetite for protein.
Fisheries are suffering because there haven’t been any real efforts to encourage sustainability and conservation, said Sobona Mtisi of the Overseas Development Institute, which is working with the Zimbabwean government to formulate policies on climate change and natural resources.
“The fisheries infrastructure from fish breeding to marketing, as well as the policy and institutional frameworks, are not yet developed to match the potential the country’s water bodies have,” Mtisi said.
Fish poaching is a big problem, Mtisi said, but that problem is exacerbated by climate change. There have been discernible shifts in climate in the Zambezi Basin, causing frequent droughts, he said.
The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization says fishing is central to the livelihood of more than 200 million people globally, especially in the developing world. But fish stocks are in jeopardy and under increasing pressure from overfishing and environmental degradation, the organization’s reports state.
Meanwhile, anti-poaching units of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife have engaged in shootouts with fish poachers. Armed Zambian fishermen prowl the waters on high-powered speedboats, said Ndaba Nkomo, a department official. The problem has grown to the point that the governments of the countries sharing the basin are working together to tackle it.
The sophisticated vessels of the poachers is a contrast to the canoes and ramshackle dinghies used by local Binga fishermen like Njobvu.
“I have lived here all my life and fishing is my life,” Njobvu said. “We used to supply people from all over the country with all kinds of fish but now the waters are no longer generous.”
The fisherman says he knows he’s at the center of a growing crisis. Now, he’s not sure whether he’ll be able to pass on old traditions.
“I do not know if our grandchildren will live off the river if nothing is done to stop the fish from disappearing,” he said.