By Ronald Musoke
Ruth Nankabirwa, the State Minister for Fisheries talked to Ronald Musoke and denied claims that the government is selling L. Victoria to enable investors do cage farming.
Why is the government selling Lake Victoria?
The Uganda government is not selling Lake Victoria. Lake Victoria belongs to Uganda [part of it since we share it with other East African countries]. However, to solve the problem of illegal fishing on the lake,regional fisheries ministers through the Lake Victoria Fisheries Organization (LVFO) recently set up a scientific committee to see how we can utilize Lake Victoria profitably to benefit East Africa.Cage farming is one of the activities that came up. Ugandans must stop the tendency of living in the past. We no longer get fish from Lake Victoria which we used to get and we no longer earn money which we used to earn. By 2005, the government was getting $143m from fish exports annually.
But the revenue went down to $81m in 2010. As I speak now, because of government efforts of enforcement of the fishing regulations, we have gone up to $113.9m. The government wants to add on farmed fish. We want to do both cage farming [on the lakes] and ponds offshore. So it is not selling Lake Victoria to foreign investors, but rather it is a policy of inviting those who want to engage in cage farming to do so.
So ordinary Ugandans too are eligible to do cage farming on Lake Victoria?
Ugandans are already doing it. We have more than 1000 cages on Lake Victoria. We have companies like Sun Fish which has 530 cages, and one other company which has 420 cages in Koome Islands. Both Kalangala and Masaka districts have farmers doing cage farming on the lake. I don’t have any Chinese on Lake Victoria doing fish farming. I have foreign companies processing fish which has been captured from Lake Victoria. They are not doing cage farming. But even if they wanted; that would be okay. We are creating wider markets and we cannot afford to remain closed.
Does government plan to eventually parcel out all its portion of Lake Victoria to enable cage farming?
I don’t want to use the word ‘parceling’ because it is very negative. Don’t incite fishing communities to think that the lake is going away in somebody’s pockets. The communities can actually do cage farming themselves on the lake because it [lake] is not going anywhere. The leases are short term; not more than 10 years. When people come to Uganda and see an empty lake, they laugh at us. You only look at an empty lake and a yawning fishing community lamenting that there is no fish.
Are the other partner states in support of cage farming in Lake Victoria?
Uganda is ahead of her partners but they are starting. Kenya is starting and Tanzania is still at trial level. However, we are mindful of the capacity of the lake. We cannot overstock the lake with cages because there is a limit. But the current percentage of the utilisation of the cages on the lake is just 2%; it is a shame.
So there will still be enough space left for fisher folk who cannot afford to do cage farming on the lake?
Yes, because Lake Victoria is like a sky; nobody can own the sky. Secondly, all the stars can co-exist in the sky. Likewise, Lake Victoria will be open to those who just want to hunt fish without feeding it. However, they will no longer be allowed to continue using illegal fishing gear.
Besides Lake Victoria, are there plans to do cage farming on the other water bodies in the country?
We already have cages on River Nile and we will soon introduce cage farming on all the six big lakes including Lakes Albert, Kyoga, George, Edward and Wamala. We are also going to stock all the 63 crater lakes in South-western Uganda. We are looking for investors who are going to partner with local governments where these lakes are situated and have no fish.They are not benefiting the local governments. I want investors to partner with the local governments to use the lakes to do fish farming.
Cage farming is not the only response to the indiscipline that is so rife in Uganda’s water bodies. How far have you gone with plans to introduce seasonal bans for key Ugandan lakes?
We are still discussing with our partners. We have many fish factories and at one time we had 21 fish factories but seven of them have since closed down because there is not enough fish to process. Those which have not closed have contracts of supplying fish from Uganda. So we have sat with them so we can see how we can stagger the closed session fishing method so that we don’t injure our market in Europe where people expect certain volumes of fish from Uganda in a given period. We also don’t want to make fish scarce in the country. That means that we shall have lakes which will be open to fishing while the others are closed and then we will alternate. We hope to effect this method on all the six major lakes; however, we will begin with Lake Kyoga which is an inland lake. Transboundary lakes are still tricky because we have to harmonize with our neighbours.
How come the government has failed to decisively deal with the importation of illegal fishing gear such as the mono filament nets?
We still don’t have harmonized policies with our neighbour, the Democratic Republic of Congo. They don’t have anything like illegal fishing gear; they use mono filaments commonly known as ‘kokota’. These nets are always declared as goods transiting through Uganda to DR Congo. You cannot stop them from transiting through Uganda but when they reach Congo, they break the seal, and infiltrate Uganda. The illegal fishing gear is also getting into the country through smuggling; from Mutukula. We have intercepted and impounded big buses, ambulances and even coffins loaded with these illegal nets. Ugandans also make illegal nets from their homes.
Going forward, what else does the government need to do to improve the fisheries sector?
The government has identified fish as one of the ten key priority enterprises for Uganda. I will not settle down before I get a fully-fledged fisheries enforcement police. I want to streamline the principle of core management of the fisheries sector. The Beach Management Units (BMUs) which handle fishing regulations have to be enhanced. I am also looking for a project that will empower the BMUs to take real charge of the fishing activities in their respective areas because these are hard to reach; travelling on water is very expensive and the life of the fisherman is so complicated—he will jump in the water at an awkward time—during the day or night. So you cannot have enough manpower to do the policing unless you use the local people to do community policing or ‘Bulungi Bwansi’ on the waters. I have also caused the amendment of the statute that established the BMUs to deal with loopholes that the fisher folk were exploiting to their advantage but to the detriment of the fisheries sector. The amendments are now with the Solicitor General. Although the process has gone too slow, we also want to amend the Fisheries Act to set up far stringent punishments for those who have been caught in illegalities.
How is government helping fish pond farmers in the country?
We will begin giving out free fingerings like we are giving out coffee and tea seedlings as well as beans and maize. We have also invited investors who want to invest in fish feed because this remains a big challenge in the sector. Fish feed makes up almost 80% of the production cost in the fisheries sector because they are not affordable and the quality sometimes is not good. We have already identified three very serious investors who will soon begin processing fish feed.
What is the latest on the regional hatcheries project?
This particular one has not gone on very well because there are projects which were mismanaged in 2007.We had ADB loans to build four hatcheries at Nkoma Fry Centre in Mbale; one was in Kajjansi, one in Gulu and the other in Bushenyi. None of them was completed and we are looking for money to complete them. However, as I speak now we can get hatcheries from the private sector. I have assisted 55 private hatcheries scattered all over the country by providing fridges, pumps, solar panels and tanks so that they can partner with us to provide the fingerings to those who want to do fish farming across the country.
Your last word?
I want to call upon every Ugandan to give me the back up as I plan for the fisheries resources in this country. I grew up from Kiboga District and we don’t have much land there but I have started fish farming. We now sell Tilapia and Cat fish from Kiboga to Kigali, Rwanda. They need five tonnes every Friday; but I cannot even satisfy the market. I am very serious in making sure that there is fish on the Ugandan market but we should also maintain our European market because getting a licence to take fresh fish to Europe is not easy. Uganda has come from far. Many of our neighbours don’t have this opportunity; it is only Uganda which still has this opportunity. If we deplete the lakes, we are closing the factories that have been established and every factory has more than 30 workers and amongst these workers; 60% of the workers are women. We are closing down jobs and many people are yearning for jobs. Illegal fishing is indiscipline of the highest order.