4 March 2014

Uganda: With Fish Stocks Falling, Shall We Close the Lakes?

Nearly every day, towards sunset, six trawlers depart from Lake Victoria's Kiyindi landing site in a military-precision-style single file on a fishing expedition.

By the time the trawlers head out to that part of Africa's largest fresh water body, it will barely have got respite from the swarm of local fishermen on motorised boats.

Such breathless fishing has bred a vicious cycle of exhaustive aquatic activity that is bringing Lake Victoria to its knees. Ditto nearly all of Uganda's other major natural water bodies such as lakes Albert, George and Edward.

"The fish on the lake is reducing because the pressure on the lake is huge," says Jonnex Mugoya, a fish inspector at Kiyindi landing site, particularly pointing to a dearth of employment opportunities as a leading reason for over-fishing.

The lake, he says, suffers because it is open to anyone: "Whoever loses a job anywhere, whoever grows up without a job, will run to the lake."

Besides Lake Victoria, Uganda's fisheries landscape includes five other major lakes (Kyoga, Albert, Edward, George and Wamala), more than 160 small lakes, a network of rivers, swamps and flood plains most of which can be used to produce fish.

The influx of local fishermen into lakes like Victoria is not just down to the high levels of unemployment; at least 60 per cent of the youths are jobless. It is further fuelled by the increasing use of modern fishing technology and fish processing facilities in the country, all jostling to satisfy the insatiable, ever-growing global appetite for fish.

Uganda's fish exports rose between 1990 and 2005, when they climbed from 1,664 tonnes to a peak value of 36,615 tonnes per annum. However, by 2011, Uganda was exporting 16,480 tonnes, about half of what it had sold six years earlier.

This was not just down to the financial crisis in Europe that affected the sector. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) country representative in Uganda, Alhaji Jallow, the drop in export was also associated with rampant harvest of immature fish and insufficient management and monitoring.

"Fish supply from Uganda's water bodies is declining. This is due to a number of factors, including over-fishing, degradation of aquatic habitats and climate change, among others," he says.

Although there has been a recent marginal recovery, the quantities (18,255 tonnes) exported indicate that Uganda is unlikely to scale the heights that it did in the mid-2000s anytime soon due to the pressure on its lakes.

Even then, the fish that is sold is only a fraction of what is caught from the lakes. This, according to Davide Signa, a key expert on food security with FAO, is because at least 40 per cent of small-scale fisheries production is lost to poor handling, poor processing and lack of value addition.

Post-harvest losses of small fishes (mukene) in Uganda range from 10 per cent in the dry season to 90 per cent in the rainy season. Uganda loses $1.5 million (about Shs 3.8bn) to Mukene post-harvest loss alone. Fresh tilapia traders also lose about 5.2 per cent of their catch to quality issues. This amounts to a loss of $220,000 annually.

"Lake Victoria supplies 80 per cent of the fish in the entire region and a quarter of it, (on) average, gets spoilt along the value chain," he says. "This is because fishermen and fish mongers in the value chain don't know how to handle fish properly. They don't have enough ice to handle it properly."

Fighting back

Faced with such niggling problems, Ugandan authorities are now fighting back by either initiating ideas aimed at overcoming the depletion of its lakes or backing internationally-funded programmes through which local fishermen and women are learning to improve the handling of their catch.

One suggestion that has been mooted at different times is to close off the lakes to all fishing activity for a time sufficient for the fish to reproduce. It is an idea that a number of fisheries officials such as Peruth Logose, a coordinator of the beach management unit at Kiyindi landing site, have bought into.

"It would be advisable that the lake should have a closed session such that the department can prepare, license the people, license the boats, license the fishermen, license the traders, such that in that time, for example, it can be two months, the fish can recover and recognised people can go into the fish trade," she says.

The state minister for Fisheries, Ruth Nankabirwa, says the closure of lakes to all fishing activity has been discussed by the concerned officials. However, Nankabirwa tells The Observer in an interview that the only lake where the idea can be implemented effectively is Kyoga, since it is all on Ugandan territory.

"The difference between Lake Kyoga and Victoria is that Victoria is trans-boundary [so] whatever policy you [make], it has to involve the other sister countries," she explains, adding that a similar challenge would be met on lakes Albert and Edward, parts of which are in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Nankabirwa says Uganda has already begun discussions with Kenya and Tanzania through the Lake Victoria Fisheries Organisation (LVFO). In the case of lakes Albert and Edward, she says the World Bank will provide funding for Uganda and DRC to form an organisation akin to the LVFO, through which such activities can be coordinated.

Although the policy was supposed to have been instituted by the end of 2013, Nankabirwa says logistical hurdles have hamstrung her ministry.

"The only problem now [is that] it is not enough to just declare a policy like that when you don't have personnel to make sure it is implemented. We have been delayed in the establishment of the MAAIF police," she says. MAAIF stands for Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries.

According to Nankabirwa, if the ministry gets its act together, then the closed fishing session initiative can be pioneered on Lake Kyoga by the end of 2014.

In addition to the closed session, the government recently directed owners of all fishing boats on Uganda's waters to acquire newly-launched number plates for their vessels. Nankabirwa says the use of number plates is also part of an effort to stem indiscriminate fishing.

"[The licensing of water vessels] intends to reduce the number of boats operating on our lakes because the depletion comes through bad fishing and overfishing. So, if we control the number of boats, then we will be able to control fishing activity," she says.

The government is also reportedly promoting aquaculture in a bid to diversify the source of fish. Uganda has about 20,000 individual fish farmers or farmer groups, most of whom still practise small-scale subsistence aquaculture.

Nankabirwa says the government hopes to increase that number by introducing more fish species that can be home-grown and organising fishermen into groups that make the activity commercially viable on a large scale.

Fish harvest losses are much harder to reduce since the most crucial thing is to get the fishermen to buy into the idea. However, the government recently backed an initiative funded by FAO and the European Union to teach fishing communities how to ensure better conservation of fish.

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