The Nation (Nairobi)

Kenya: 'Omena' Trade Ban Turns Fishy

Nairobi — Fifty-year-old Mary Ondiek sits outside her battered kiosk in Muhuru Bay, hungry and frustrated. She has not paid rent for two months and does not know where her next meal will come from.

She curses as she takes cover behind a shop.

Three fisheries officials are approaching in a double cabin truck. Mrs Ondiek has been playing hide-and-seek with them for a week to avoid arrest. She has "violated" the recent ban on fishing and trading in omena, a small popular fish often sun-dried and sold in tin measures like grain.

Along Lake Victoria shores, bitter fishermen are counting their loses as they come to terms with the ban. They have anchored their canoes and stored their fishing nets.

For two months, they will have to learn to live a life without the daily earnings from the omena trade.

But most have never known any other economic activity. They will have to find new ways of survival.

Like other fishmongers on the lake's beaches, Mrs Ondiek's store is packed with bags of omena. She says she can't sell her 50 bags as a result of the embargo.

Special permit

To move the fish to the market, Mrs Ondiek now needs a special permit from the Ministry of Fisheries and Livestock. But she protests that acquiring the permit is a costly affair.

"Why do I need a permit, yet the Government knows the fish was harvested before the ban? They have the machinery to monitor this," adds Mrs Ondiek.

Yet without the permit, she will have to trade at secret locations... and keep up the hide-and-seek game.

Barely a month after the Government effected the two-month omena ban ban, fishermen are accusing fisheries scouts of human rights abuses and corruption.

In Muhuru Bay, residents dread the scouts. Always accompanied by armed policemen, they are ruthless with traders defying the embargo.

A number of people have so far been charged in courts with offences ranging from "illegal" fishing to trading without permits.

Economic consequences

The ban has brought about harsh economic consequences. Beaches that once bustled with activity are deserted. Crime has soared and women traders have succumbed to prostitution.

And all this, despite the Government shortening the ban this year from the initial four months to just two months, due to drought.

Last month, fisheries director Nancy Gitonga said the Government rejected requests by fishermen to have the ban lifted altogether, following the drought that has ravaged the region.

Instead, Mrs Gitonga announced at a meeting at the Tom Mboya Labour College in Kisumu that the Government had cut the ban to only two months.

But the traders are protesting against another decision to stop them from selling the stocks of fish they had long before the ban took effect on April 1.

Many are stuck with thousands of sacks of omena, which might go to waste if not sold immediately.

Mrs Ondiek bought her stock meant to last the entire two months. Many others did the same.

"Why am I being arrested for selling fish which has been in my store long before the ban? Where do they want us to take all the fish we bought before April 1?" asks Mrs Ondiek. The closed season, as government officials call it, has paralysed activities in 300 beaches where fishing is the main economic activity.

Fishermen say Tanzanian traders have cashed in on the ban to make a kill. Sacks of omena arrive from across the border in boats and lorries.

They say the officials should police the lake to stop those flouting the ban on fishing, instead of chasing after traders in markets.

In Tanzania and Uganda omena fishing is not controlled, and there are no closed seasons. This gives fishermen from the two countries advantage over the Kenyans.

Worst affected by the ban are Migori, Suba, Homa Bay, Bondo and Busia districts, where omena fishing is the main economic activity.

But a senior fisheries official, Mr Michael Obadha, claims the fish ban is justified and accuses the fishermen of politicising the issue.

"We were kind enough to reduce the ban to two months. The decision to close the lake to allow omena to breed was suggested by the fishermen themselves. We did not impose it on them," Mr Obadha said.

The closed season, he said, was inevitable because omena only breeds between April and August.

He added: "We gave adequate notice, and those who kept huge stocks of the fish have themselves to blame. They know the rules, and should follow them."

Mr Obadha said those still keeping old stocks need to get special permits from the fisheries officials. "They have to declare the quantities they have, and apply for the permit," he said.

He denied that the ban, coupled with large volumes of omena exported last year could compromise food security.

He also played down claims that omena exports for the manufacture of animal feeds could lead to a shortage even after the ban is lifted. Omena is extinct or non-existent in many countries, hence the huge demand.

Based in Mbita, a firm, Promasidor, is already buying the fish from local traders and exporting it to many African countries.

Research has shown that omena has the highest protein content of all fish, hence its high demand in central and southern Africa.

In Zambia, Namibia and Malawi, the fish is used in the manufacture of protein supplements.

The frustration of omena traders is worsened by the turning of other fish species like mbuta (Nile perch) and ngege (tilapia) into a rich man's business; they export the fish to Europe and Asia.

Local traders have slowly been edged out of the business. Their dug out canoes, small nets and skeleton staff cannot compete with powerful outboard engine boats brought in by fish processing and export giants.

Rich businessmen from afar now control the Lake Victoria fish business, leaving locals to turn to the much smaller omena business.

Out of some 180,000 fishermen, only 41 per cent are locals, according to ministry records. Most of the Sh6 billion earned from the industry is invested away from the lake basin.

In 2004, mbuta fillet exports raked in Sh5,035,925, the highest in nine years.

Mr Obadha explained: "We can't compare our situation with Uganda and Tanzania because they have larger portions of the lake, with huge stocks of fish."

He said since the ban was started five years ago, the production of omena had increased "tremendously".

Supplement income

Mr Obadha wants omena fishermen to find alternative activities to supplement their income during the closed seasons.

He said his department would investigate claims that fish scouts enforcing the ban are corrupt and favour those bribing them.

Fishermen however accuse the Government of "letting it's citizens starve".

"In Tanzania, the government allowed its people to harvest and feed on the omena because of the harsh drought. In Kenya omena is more important that human beings," said Mr Samwel Orore, a councillor in Muhuru Bay.

And while the Government seems to be torn between saving the fish stock and letting its starving population feed, it appears to be on the side of omena, claim fishermen.

Mrs Gitonga admitted being aware of the harsh effects of the ban on hundreds of fishermen, but maintained that the decision was for the benefit of the country.

"The situation we are confronted with here is a tricky one. While it's our responsibility to ensure the well being of the people, it's also upon us to look after our fish in the lake," she said.

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