Saturday, September 19, 2020

Where is the catch?

He is meticulous in cleaning the day?s catch. Then he seizes each fish by the gills, and hangs it up by the head on a long piece of wire. The fish is reasonably big, but the fisherman insists that it is not his best catch.

It is just after 5pm at the informal fish market across Old Naledi, just off the edges of Gaborone Dam. The market?s patrons are representative of the society?s demographics ? professionals, casual labourers, the urban unemployed, men and women.
It is fish harvesting season and it translates into short-term life improvement for the commercial fishermen.

Fifty-year-old Ramontsho Mothubi is one of the full-time commercial fishermen operating at the area. He has been at it for the past two years, and it has become a means of survival in a city where regular jobs are a rarity.

His only gripe with this undertaking is that it is seasonal, which places a burden on the fisherman to devise other survival means for the period when the dam?s authority ? Water Utilities Corporation ? places the annual ban on fishing.

?The life of a fisherman is very uncertain,? says Mothubi.

?It?s only around this time of year that we make enough to feed families. Other than that, we do not have any income after the month of October when we are compelled to shut our fish stalls at the end of the fishing season.?

The fish prices range between P20 and P40 for the bigger ones like the catfish, and P7 to P15 for the smaller ones like the carp and snook. However, Mothubi feels that these are giveaway prices which are dictated by circumstances such as inadequate market for the catch, as well as lack of cold storage facilities.

?We don?t have standard prices for our fish because of lack of demand. We often negotiate with customers, and they always end up paying the price they want. We don?t have control over our market,? he says.

A fisherman at the Old Naledi fish market earns an average of P150 a day. Mothubi insists that he could be making more if it were not for lack of storage facilities.

?If I had a deep freezer or if any of the local supermarkets and restaurants could buy fish from me, I would not have to give away my catch for next to nothing as I do presently,? he points out.

The best days for brisk business are Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Mothubi cannot explain his customers? pine for fish during those particular days, except he wishes residents of the capital city would crave more often.

Mothubi?s equipment includes a boat, a fishing rod, and a net. He indicates that fishing requires great deal of patience.

?Commercial fishing is extremely demanding work. We can be at the dam for hours and hours casting our nets and lines without any catch. You must be able to handle disappointment in order to survive in this business,? he says.

The weather also determines the catch. The wind makes it difficult to fish because the lines and nets get tangled due to violent movement.

?Bad weather is a total ruin for our business. When it rains, we cannot operate. The most favourable conditions for fishing are when the skies are dark or cloudy and the dam is calm,? Mothubi says. ?Personally, I prefer fishing in the early hours of the morning.?

Mothubi declares that the best time of the year to fish is during the winter months. Besides the huge catch, the fish also remain fresh for a longer period than during the hot season.

During the hot months, a lot of fish goes to waste simply because of the heat. This is the time when fisherman makes incalculable losses. The enterprising ones dry the fish. However, dried fish is not as popular with the customers as the one just fresh from the water.

Mothubi is thinking of becoming more innovative and aggressive in his marketing. He wants to explore the possibility of selling from door to door. He has realised that over the past few years, Batswana have begun to appreciate fish as part of their diet. This is in stark contrast to the days when the fish market used to be the sole domain of expatriates and tourists.

Marambe Tsonko, a 22-year-old fisherman, has seen some colleagues driven out of business by the frequent restrictions imposed on commercial fishing by the Water Utilities Corporation.

Personally, he was hard hit by the fishing moratorium that was imposed last year due to the low water level in the dam. It was one of the most difficult periods of his life as he was left without any income-generating activity.

Tsonko points out that there was no alternative, but to wait patiently and pray for the rains and for the fish to breed. Fishing was opened at the beginning of February.

Mothubi explains that, as in any other business venture, there is competition in fishing. ?There is stiff competition between us, and it?s crucial that I provide good service by selling fresh fish that is worth the price. Otherwise, the other fishermen will beat me to it,? he says.

Tsonko states that the catch is not always abundant. There are very good days, and there are very bad ones. There are days when he catches a few fish. On extremely bad days, he would catch just one or two.

?There are times when it?s really rough, when you go through the day without catching anything. But the point is not to give up because the following day might just be yours,? Tsonko says.

Although Mothubi frets about the hardship of selling his fish, he says it never happens that he throws away any fish.

?What we cannot sell, we take home for our own consumption. At least we have something to go by each day,? he smiles.

He looks forward to a time when the local fishermen would organise themselves to be able to market their produce collectively, and reap more rewards.

?At the moment our future in the fish market looks very gloom,? he says. (FPN)

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Sunday Standard September 20 – 26

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of September 20 - 26, 2020.