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Lake Victoria losing its fish

By Ronald Musoke

Why tasty Nile Perch is giving way to tiny Mukene

Mathias Wafula is a worried man. As deputy executive secretary of the Lake Victoria Fisheries Organisation’s (LVFO), he is constantly analysing the fish stock of the world’s second largest fresh water body.

That mainly involves analyzing the fortunes of the Nile perch, the world’s largest freshwater fish that can grow to two metres long and weigh up to 200kg. Recently, Wafula has been getting only bad news.  He says there is evidence to suggest that the Nile Perch is being over fished. The average size of landed Nile perch has declined from over 50kg twenty years ago to less than 10kg today.


Wafula’s concern has become a national frenzy. Everywhere one turns, ordinary folk, local leaders, and even President Yoweri Museveni are concerned about the dwindling catches of Nile perch.

It is an ironical twist because since it first appeared in Lake Victoria about 50 years ago, the Nile perch has never been popular. Locally called ‘empuuta’, it was considered too bland, fatty and smelly by local fish eaters.They preferred the tilapia which was abundant in the lake then.

The Nile perch was also disliked because it feeds on other fish species, including the popular Tilapia.

But the Nile perch’s large and palatable bone-free flesh, the ease of catching it using both traditional and industrial techniques endeared it to the export market.

Today, the Nile Perch is the lake’s most viable commercial species estimated at 51%, Tilapia 24% and silver fish and other fish species at 25%.

The demand for Nile perch was spurred by local consumers, regional markets of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, South Sudan and Burundi, and industries that process fish for export mainly to Europe.

As demand for it grew in international markets, more fishermen entered the lake to catch it and more factories sprung up on the shores to process it. Today, the Nile perch has depleted the lake of most of the other species.

Lake Victoria which was one of the most diverse fish environments in the world, with over 500 species of fish according to the 2012 UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation’s audit of inland capture of fishery statistics for Africa, has lost its variety.

Hassan Ssenoga, the secretary of the Beach Management Unit (BMU) at Ggaba landing site, near Kampala city, says today there are just a handful of species left in the lake.

As a result, a visitor to any fish landing site on Lake Victoria will find an unprecedented scramble for the Nile perch. Locals now savour it deep fried, smoked, or boiled. The once bland and smelly fish has become a delicacy.

But that will not be long if Wafula is right that less and less Nile perch is available in the lake. Everyone is desperate.

The annual worth of the lake’s fish resources is estimated to be about US$ 590 million of which US$ 340 million is generated at the shore and US$ 250 million is earned in exports from the Nile perch. It could be lost.

In a meeting on the issue with President Yoweri Museveni in May, the leaders of Mukono District which depends on fish as a revenue line, proposed a season ban of four months on fishing to attempt to restore stocks.

The proposal has become controversial.

Uganda’s fish exports over the years

Fish pirates

Janepher Egunyu Nantume, the woman MP for the Lake Victoria island district of Buvuma, says the issue of depletion of fish stocks, especially the Nile perch, requires a joint approach by the three countries that share the lake.

Nantume, who also sits on the committee of agriculture, animal industry and fisheries in Parliament, says Ugandan fishers need to invest in better gear and boats and head deeper into the lake to catch the big fish. But she says they cannot do that because of piracy on the lake.

Nantume, whose district is an amalgamation of over 50 islands, says the three governments need to tackle insecurity on the lake. She says Ugandan fishers have failed to invest in better gear because of insecurity. Nantume says the fishermen are also frustrated because they pay a lot of taxes but get nothing in return.

“Even if the fishermen bought the standard fishing gear, its security cannot be guaranteed because fishermen from Tanzania and Kenya cross into Ugandan waters and steal their equipment,” she recently told The Independent.

“Imagine a fisherman, investing about Shs 2 million in a boat, Shs 4.5 million in an outboard engine and Shs 7 million in the required nets, and he loses them overnight to thieves from the other states, do you think he would be encouraged to re-invest again in good fishing gear?”

“It is these situations that discourage most fishermen from respecting the authorities’ set guidelines.”

She also blames the entry into the country of nets that are used in illegal fishing on the porous borders. She says the government needs to double its surveillance efforts.

Nantume has a point.

The 68,800 Sq. km lake is estimated to produce a fish catch of over 800,000 tonnes per year. But Uganda, which holds 43% of Lake Victoria, contributes only 18.6% of this annual catch.

That is barely 4 percentage points more than Kenya which holds only 6% of the lake. Many question how Kenya is able to catch so much fish from its small portion of the lake. Tanzania, which holds 51% of the lake, contributes 66.6% of the annual catch.

Some experts say, therefore, the numbers do not tell the whole story. They say most of Uganda’s fish is exported illegally to the neighbouring countries of the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Kenya and Rwanda. Officials of the Uganda Fish Processors and Exporters Association could not give The Independent the latest figures but by 2007, a Bank of Uganda survey indicated that the illegal fish trade was worth about US$33 million.

In money terms, today Tanzania gets between US$200 million and US$270 million from Lake Victoria fish annually, Uganda between US$ 55 and 75 million, and Kenya US$ 45 and 60 million.

But part of the problem is that Uganda has very little activity on the lake.

While Tanzania has about 100, 000 fishermen on the lake, Uganda has got just 63,000. Kenya, which has just a tiny bit of the lake, packs it with 40,000. In fact, Uganda’s numbers have been reducing.

In 2006, 28% of all fishermen on the lake operated in Ugandan waters. By 2008 they had declined to 26%. They rose again slightly to 29% in 2010 and 31% last year.

Over the same period, Tanzania held steady with 49% of fishing activity going on in its waters, and Kenya declined from 23% in 2006 to 20% in 2012.

Massacre on the lake

As the debate rages, more people, using more boats, are entering the lake every day to catch dwindling numbers of fish.

Thousands of fishing boats are out on the lake every day and night to supply the more than 30 fish processing industries strewn around Lake Victoria’s 3,450 km long shoreline.

Ten years ago, there were about 130,000 fishermen on the lake. Today there are 200,000.

Over the same period, fishing crafts on the lake have risen from about 42,519 to 71,138 last year. Between 2010 and 2012 alone, about 5000 new boats were added on the lake.

Tanzania has most boats with 41%, followed by Uganda 40%, and Kenya 19%.

Of these boats, less than a quarter are engine-driven. Most are traditional paddle boats whose owners use poor fishing gear and target the relatively inshore/shallow waters where the sensitive nursery and breeding grounds for fish are.

The problem is getting worse because, instead of getting better fishing gear including boats that can venture farther into the lake; the fishers are resorting to illegal gear to catch immature fish.

Their main target remains the Nile perch which breeds and sticks to the shore when young and only ventures out into the lake’s depth in adult life. As a result most of the Nile perch is now being killed young. Instead of the 200kg monster fish, the biggest Nile perch caught is barely 10kgs.

Under pressure from fish processors, the government decreed that the fish that can grow to two metres in length can now be legally harvested as long as it is at least 21 inches (0.5 metres) long. The result has been a massacre of the young Nile perch.

Time for small fish

A 2012 audit of the management of fisheries activities in the Tanzanian portion of Lake Victoria by the Ministry of Livestock, Fisheries and Development shows that available stock of Nile Perch in Tanzanian waters is estimated at 165,439 tonnes while its annual quantity of removal is estimated at 101,298 tonnes.

In the Ugandan portion of the lake, the overall annual catch of Nile perch has decreased over the years from 94,903 in 2005 to 70,061 in 2011. Catches of tilapia have also decreased by 34% from 29,450 in 2005 to 19,350 in 2011.

At Kasensero, one of the major landing sites in Uganda in Rakai district, four years ago, fishermen say, boats could bring in 2 tonnes per day during the high season. Today they catch half of that.  The livelihood of over 30 million people in the lake’s catchment is under threat. Not exactly says Wafula.

In yet another ironical twist, recent hydro-acoustic and catch assessment surveys show there is in fact more fish in Lake Victoria – but it is the wrong fish.

Conducted simultaneously in all the three parts of the lake, the surveys estimate the total fish biomass at about 2.1m metric tonnes; a 30% increase from the 1.6 metric tonnes the lake held in 2009. The Nile perch has reduced from 1.2 million tonnes four years ago to 800,000 tonnes.

The stock of tilapia, which is a local delicacy, is estimated to have increased from 0.3 million tonnes to 0.6 million in the last four years.

The greatest increase, however, has been in the smaller species especially, silver fish (Mukene, dagaa or Omena) and haplochromines (Nkejje).

They have doubled from 0.4 million tonnes to a million tonnes and from 0.3 million tonnes to 0.6 tonnes respectively.

Ugandans generally do not eat the silver fish species, Mukene and Nkejje. They are considered fish for the poor and their only consumers are farmers who mix them in animal feeds. In the changing fortunes of Lake Victoria, it will be interesting to see how Ugandans switch from eating the biggest fish to eating the tiny Mukene.

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