25 June 2008

East Africa: Saving the 'Fish Basket' From Drying Up


This is the third and final part of a three part series exploring the human

dimensions of the recent decline in the Nile perch fishery of Lake Victoria. In this part, Gina L. Gettum talks about the recommendations that can be taken to increase the amount of fish in the lake

While Lake Victoria remains the most productive fishery in Africa, with annual fishery yields fluctuating around 600,000 tonnes, valued at $350 - 400m, catches of Nile perch are steadily declining. In 2001, boats caught an average 160 kilos of Nile perch each trip, today they catch less than 20. At the same time, catches of lower valued species, such as the silver-coloured mukene are steady, if not increasing.

According to fishermen and fishery managers alike, the causes of the Nile perch fishery crisis are complex and there will be no single silver bullet solution. Additionally, the future unknown and variable impacts of climate change require that the basin is strong enough to cope with future change.

According to Robert Baakai, long time fishermen, boat manager, and Vice Chairman of the Kigungu Beach Management Unit, the fishery is in crisis due to the influx of new fishermen from inland to the lake and the catching of undersized fish. "Competition and declining stocks have driven our fishermen to fish for illegal, undersized Nile perch," says Baakai.

Others attribute the declining fish stocks to decreased oxygen levels in the lake. Decreased oxygen levels are caused by the influx of untreated industrial, agricultural and human wastes into the basin system.

The decline in Nile perch stocks is not going unnoticed by the hardworking fishery scientists and managers in the basin. Management institutions are taking prudent fishery management measures designed to protect the fishery, but the lack of a clear definition of what a sustainable Lake Victoria fishery actually is hinders the development of comprehensive solutions to solve the fishery crisis.

Is a sustainable fishery defined by consistent, high quality exports of Nile perch? Is it defined by a vibrant and enduring local fishery? Or does sustainability lie in somewhere in between?

Strengthen science and management

In 1993, the East African Community established the Lake Victoria Fisheries Organisation (LVFO) to harmonise research and management of the fishery.

Acknowledging the shared responsibility of fisheries management between the three basin countries, the LVFO has the "function and responsibility" to promote management, research, institution building and optimum utilisation of the fisheries and other resources of the lake. The LVFO works collaboratively with the fisheries science and management institutions around the basin.

The LVFO is funded primarily by grants from the European Union. Because of this, the mission, goals, agenda and activities of the LVFO are largely outlined by foreign donors, rather than the three contracting parties.

Similarly, due to the African Caribbean and Pacific Free Trade Agreement which is currently being renegotiated, the three Lake Victorian countries are unable to assess meaningful duties on exports of Nile perch. The inability of the Ugandan, Kenyan and Tanzanian governments to assess duties and reinvest them in fisheries science and management challenges the sovereignty of these nations over managing their own resources toward their own goals.

While it is difficult to acknowledge that the most productive fishery in Africa is in serious decline, the LVFO and the fisheries management and research arms of the three basin nations are taking prudent, but incremental steps to attempt to manage the fishery towards sustainability. While focusing on fishing effort alone is unlikely to save the fishery, there is hope that more comprehensive management strategies just might.

Promote integrated, ecosystem-based management

Like most fisheries management organisations the world over, the LVFO and national fisheries institutions lack jurisdiction over management and regulation of some of the major causes of fishery decline in the basin - namely, loss of suitable fish habitat caused by industrial pollutants and agricultural runoff. These inputs decrease oxygen levels in the lake, shrinking suitable habitat for fish to reproduce, mature, and thrive.

There is an urgent need for an integrated, ecosystem-based management approach to fisheries management in Lake Victoria that acknowledges and incorporates actions on land that affect aquatic life. Opening communication between management institutions with overlapping resources but different jurisdictions is an important step towards ecosystem-based management in the basin.

Additionally, recognising and harnessing the socio-economic drivers of population increase in fishing communities may reduce fishing pressure in the lake if incentives are created to encourage new fishermen to return to farming or other land-based activities. According to Baakai, targeted aid towards the upcountry agricultural sector, coinciding with a temporary ban on fishing would help reduce the number of fishermen on the lake.

In addition to the BMU structure, aquaculture, an eco-label for Nile perch and water reserves are posed as potential solutions. Unless designed and implemented with an integrated ecosystem approach, conscious of the impacts on social, economic and ecological systems in the basin, even these innovative and promising solutions may fail to sustain fishery productivity.

Aquaculture towards local and regional consumption

Fish farming in and around the lake is posed as a viable solution to declining fish exports. Uganda leads the way in promoting commercial aquaculture in the basin, having leased portions of the land and lake to private investors.

While aquaculture may be an important source of fish, experience with industrial fish farming in other areas of the world indicate that fish farming must be developed in full consideration of the social and environmental impacts of production if it is to avoid the similar negative impacts experienced with the wild fishery.

Considerations of scale, species farmed, feeds used, distribution of benefits, markets targeted and environmental precautions must be incorporated into aquaculture development for it to meaningfully benefit the people of the basin.

Consolidation of ownership consolidates the distribution of benefits, while conflicts with fishermen and ecological transformations may further endanger wild fishing in the basin. Moreover, if food security is the goal, local, and regional markets should be targeted for the sale of farmed fish.

Around Lake Victoria and in Southern Sudan and the DRC, there is a uniquely large local consumer demand for small affordable fish that can be quickly farmed. Typically, farmed fish tend to lose out to wild fish on local fish markets, due to their small size in comparison with wild fish. However, fried or smoked small tilapia can be sold on local markets for Shs1,000-1,500 per piece.

Fair-trade labels, not Eco-labels.

An eco-label for Nile perch is actively being pursued by the three basin nations. Eco-labels certify that the fishery is sustainable and provide consumers with the satisfaction of enjoying a product that is created in an environmentally friendly way. While an eco-label would help differentiate Nile perch on international markets from cheaper imports from other countries, given the recent declines in fish stocks, the basin appears to be a long way from producing fish in an ecologically sustainable way.

According to some fishery managers, "It is more viable to pursue a fair-trade fishery" - where fishermen are ensured a fair price for their product. Given the upsurge in international attention to the social impacts of the Nile perch trade and other global commodities, international consumers are increasingly willing to pay a premium price for products that pay a fair wage to the producers.

One of the most practical solutions to the fishery crisis may be the establishment and enforcement of a series of water reserves in the lake. Water reserves are designed to protect fish stocks and biodiversity by prohibiting commercial fishing and protecting fish habitat. Uganda is leading the way in protected aquatic reserve in the basin.

In December of 2007, the Government of Uganda established its first ever "water reserve" on Lake Victoria to commemorate the bi-annual Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting held in Kampala, in November 2007. Following the theme of the meeting, "Transforming Commonwealth Societies to Achieve Political, Economic, and Human Development," it is hoped that the water reserve will transform the lake's waterscape by limiting access to fisheries resources to stimulate biological production of the Lake's most economically valued species - the Nile perch.

While the Ministry of Agriculture, Animals and Fisheries has gazetted an area of the lake south of Kampala for the reserve, funding for enforcement is not yet secured. The Ministry may want to consider expanding the gazetted area to include more essential fish habitat found in inshore waters to protect spawning and nursery habitat for fish.

Additionally, it is essential that local attitudes towards the water reserve are assessed and incorporated into management plans for the CWR to determine whether the reserve is an effective means to ensure the sustainable use of Uganda's fisheries, or if other more inclusive strategies are needed.

While the success or failure of any new strategy will only be determined over time, no single silver bullet solution exists to solve the fishery crisis.

A sustainable future for Lake Victoria lies within the hearts and minds of those interacting with the lake every day - both on the water and on paper. Collaboration, cooperation and innovation between traditional and non-traditional stakeholders, government agencies, and the LVFO should define and guide the future of Lake Victoria.

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