Environmental change in the Great Lakes Systems of the World:

Lake Tanganyika

Lake Tanganyika is the least accessible of the 3 Great Lakes in East Africa.

There are few major towns at or near the lake and road access is minimal. Many other extremes apply to this lake. It is the deepest in Africa, and second in the world after Lake Baikal in Russia, with a depth of almost 1.5 km! Approximately one-sixth of the earth's freshwater is contained in this beautiful lake. Most of the volume of the lake is anoxic as, below 100-200 m depth there is no free oxygen in the water. The lake is famous for the spectacular variety of its endemic cichlid fish fauna (one of the most diverse radiations of any vertebrate group anywhere - known as a species ‘flock’), part of a remarkable and genetically-diverse demersal fish community. Despite the diversity near the shores, the pelagic community is relatively simple (although this should be expected because of the inevitable simplicity of the pelagic environment). Many of the other species living in the lake is endemic; i.e. you won't see it in any other place of the world. That includes over 250 species of cichlids (numbers of catalogued species still increase as the fauna is studied in more detail) and 8 species of crab, 15 species of shrimp, some 60 species of snail, various bivalves, leeches, sponges, a water-living snake, a jellyfish etc., etc. even the slender snouted crocodile (Crocodylus cataphractus).

The main reason for the spectacular development of biodiversity is the very long and continuous existence of the lake. Lake Tanganyika is much older, (about 20 m yrs) than Lake Victoria and probably also Malawi, thus, the fauna in the lake is at quite a different stage in diversifying through evolution. Diversity is high, for instance in fish species, but less than the contemporary situation in Lake Malawi or Lake Victoria before the Nile perch was introduced. However, the life forms could be said to be more divergent from ancestral types than in the other two lakes due to the greater age of the lake and thus longer period for evolution to act. Many of the representatives of the cichlid family present are endemic in Lake Tanganyika but the rest of the fauna contains a long list of remarkable species. There are 2 species of freshwater herring or sardine-like fish (Clupeids), which may have entered the lake a very long time ago from the Atlantic through the Congo River. These form the mainstay of the pelagic fisheries. Unlike the situation in Lake Victoria there is not just one ‘Nile perch’ species in this lake, but there are as many as four. They arrived like the herrings also a very long time ago and are thus a fully integrated part of the ecosystem, instead of a new, introduced and destabilizing agent. The lake community is probably an example of where top carnivores are increasing biodiversity, once the prey species have had time to develop their strategies for survival.

The demersal fish community includes almost 300 fish species (including mainly the cichlids) of which over two-thirds are endemic. The pelagic fish community is composed of six endemic, non-cichlid species (see FAO Figure): two schooling clupeids, Limnothrissa miodon (Boulenger, 1906) and Stolothrissa tanganicae (Regan, 1917), and their major predators, four members of the genus Lates (Centropomidae), L. stappersii (Boulenger, 1914), L. angustifrons (Boulenger, 1906), L. mariae (Steindachner, 1909), and L. microlepis (Boulenger, 1898). (These are often mistakenly referred to as ‘Nile Perch’ because of the Lates family connection. In fact they are not that closely related to Lates niloticus ).

In recent years, Lake Tanganyika, like many other biologically sensitive areas, has begun to feel the effects of increased population pressure. Fishing practices, for example, have become much more efficient, and consequently, more destructive. Commercial fishing began in the mid-1950s and has had an extremely heavy impact of the fish stocks and the majority of fish species.

In modern times, by far the largest amount of fishing effort in Lake Tanganyika targets pelagic fish, particularly two species of sardines and one of the ‘Perch’ (L. stappersii) which predate on the sardines. The mainstay of the artisanal fishermen are the pelagic sardines. These are caught with light assisted beach seines, lift nets and (in the South of the lake) ring nets. Together these two resources probably make up 90% of the catches from the lake. . The"Tanganyika sardine" (Stolothrissa tanganikae,  constitutes 55-90% of the commercial fishery and 80-99% of the traditional artisanal fishery (Rufli, 2001) and as such is very important for the local economy

The fisheries of Lake Tanganyika are far the most important source of animal protein for human consumption in this region of Central Africa. Lake Tanganyika has traditionally supplied between 25 and 40 per cent of the protein needs of the local population in the four riparian countries. About 45,000 people are directly involved in the fisheries operating from almost 800 sites.

Fisheries characteristics

Most fishing is done at night as virtually all fishing methods (e.g. purse seines, lift-nets, beach seines and scoop-nets) rely on clupeids being attracted to light. Fishing activities, therefore, practically have to cease every month during the full moon.

There are three recognizable types of fisheries on Lake Tanganyika:

The semi-industrial fishery was started in 1954, when Greek fishermen introduced the purse seine. A typical industrial fishing unit consists of 16 to 20 m long steel vessel, a purse seine and auxiliary steel boat, 5 lamp boats and a total crew of 30-40 fishers.

The artisanal fishery in the northern part of the lake uses small boats and catamarans operated communally with lamp boats to attract the fish. A typical catamaran fishing unit consists of two (three for trimarans) 6-7 m long mainly wooden plank hulls, a lift net (55 - 65 m circumference), 6-7 lamps and an average of 4.7 fishers. In the Zambian part of the lake; the majority of artisanal fishing units in the south are beach seines operating at night, with lights, mainly to catch clupeids.

The traditional/subsistence fishery uses many different fishing gears (gill-nets, hook and line, scoop-net, longlines, traps, mosquito-nets, etc.). Although these gear are generally less efficient than artisanal gear, many people are involved in their use around the lake.

Fishing effort and catch

A major decline of the catch per-unit-unit-effort (CPUE) was recorded during the 1990s making parts of the fishery unprofitable. However, the artisanal lift-net fishery, due to the use of bigger nets, better fishing lamps and the choice of more productive fishing grounds, managed to maintain its CPUE at a profitable level.

The lake's commercial fishery in recent years has been essentially based on the two clupeids (ca. 65% by weight) and L. stappersii (ca. 30% by weight). Clupeids are generally the most abundant species, although there is often an inverse relationship in catch numbers between clupeids and L. stappersii. The total fish catch for Lake Tanganyika for 1995 was estimated at 178 700 mt, shared as follows: Burundi 21 000 mt, Tanzania 55 000 mt, DRC 90 000 mt and Zambia 12 700 mt (FAO figures). The value of the catch has been estimated at approximately $US26 million.

Over one million people are dependent on the Lake Tanganyika fisheries including almost 45,000 fishers and their families and those involved in fish processing and marketing.

Fish - post-harvest

Considerable differences exist in the level of post-harvest fisheries development around the lake. There is an extensive and costly infrastructure (cold stores, processing plants, refrigerated trucks, etc,) in Mpulungu, Zambia, and to a lesser extent in Kalemie, DRC. No such facilities are available elsewhere, notably in Bujumbura and Kigoma.

Clupeids and juvenile L. stappersii are either sold fresh or sun-dried at most local landing sites. Adult L. stappersii and other larger fish are sometimes smoke-dried by local processors before sale. Improved methods of brine washing and rack drying have been introduced but are rarely used. Energy-intensive industrial techniques of cleaning, brining, freezing, and (sometimes) smoking are practised only at processing plants in Mpulungu and in Kalemie. Recently, the canning of clupeids and L. stappersii was developed in Zambia. External marketing of catches in excess of local needs is difficult and complex due to transportation problems. With the exception of the extreme north part of the lake, most roads are tangential. The shores are steep and few roads link the populations around the edges of the lake, particularly the extensive shorelines of DRC and Tanzania. Fish, particularly clupeids, are thus traded along the coast by 'water-taxis' or by the ferries M/V Liemba and M/V Mwongozo at ports between Mpulungu and Bujumbura. Major outlets for dry fish are the 'Copperbelt' complex of large towns in Zambia, the DRC cities of Lubumbashi, Bukavu and Goma, and in Rwanda.


Useful Links

Picture of Major Commercial Fish Species
of Lake Tanganyika :

Information on Lake Tanganyika Fisheries and Background - FAO Project


Lake Tanganyika details on LakeNet: