Fish lovers can now enjoy the succulent white flesh of Nile Perch or Tilapia from Lake Victoria as the stocks recovers since the Uganda People's Defence Forces under the Fisheries Protection Unit began policing the water ten months ago to control illegal fishing.
President Yoweri Museveni deployed UPDF on the lake in response to complaints by stakeholders - including fish catchers, processors, traders and government officials - that fish stocks in the lake were declining at an alarming rate, and the once thriving agricultural sub-sector would be no more if this remained un-checked.
This follows disbandment of fisheries officers and Beach Management Units (BMU) over illegal fishing, extortion and aiding other illegal dealers to trade in immature fish in 2015.
Whereas concrete proof of this new measure will only be available upon completion of an assessment of fish stocks in the lake by fisheries research institutes of Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya, which share the lake and collected data in September, this year, to ascertain the quantity of fish in the lake, The Independent's investigation reveals some good news.
From Masese Fish Landing site in Jinja, 80 km east of Kampala, to Ggaba Fish Landing Site in Kampala, from Kasenyi Fish Landing Site in Entebbe to Bukakata Landing Site that connects Masaka and Kalangala Districts, fish harvests are said to have more than tripled since February this year, compared to the period prior to deployment of the UPDF on Lake Victoria.
For instance, Kasenyi Fish Landing Site has seen fish harvests increase from eight tonnes to 30 tonnes per day, according to the Site's management records while harvests originating from Kalangala District via Bukakata Landing Site has seen fish harvests increase from less than two tonnes to more than eight tonnes per day during the same period under review citing increase in mature fish catches.
At Masese Fish Landing Site, fish harvests have increased from about 250kgs per day to one tonne (1,000 kgs) for those destined to the local markets, whereas those destined to processing factories had tripled to four tonnes per day over the past ten months compared with the periods prior to last February, according to Michael Aliru, a tax officer attached to the fish sub-sector at the Jinja Municipa Council.
A similar trend is reported at Ggaba Fish Landing Site, which has seen catch for Nile Perch increase from 330 kg prior to the UPDF deployment in Lake Victoria to 660 kgs per day at the moment.
Consequently, fish prices to processing firms have dropped by more than 50% to Shs7, 500 per kilogramme, with fishermen citing a glut.
Edward Rukuunya, the commissioner for fisheries in the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries (MAAIF), confirmed to The Independent that indeed fish stocks had increased in the past ten months, attributing this to intensive fighting of illegal fishing on Lake Victoria.
Illegal fishing in Uganda currently involves using less than 5 inch fishing nets for Tilapia and less than 7 inch fishing nets for Nile Perch that results into the harvesting of immature fish that measures less than 11 inch and 20 inch in length, respectively. It also entails using fishing boats that are less than 20 feet in length and with absence of lifer jackets.
"Reports from fishing communities show that fish stocks have improved but I cannot authoritatively say that I have data on the fish stocks at the moment," Rukuunya said, "A study that was carried out on the fish stocks by the three countries that share the lake is yet to be completed."
Capt. Nathan Abaho, the UPDF officer in charge of operations on the lake in Kalangala District told The Independent that they have observed an increase in mature fish catches during the period, due to a crackdown on catchers, dealers and exporters of illegal fish, mainly to Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and South Sudan.
This is through working with a section of fishermen and chairpersons of gazetted landing sites, closing of un-gazetted landing sites, destroying illegal fishing gears as well as arresting and prosecuting fishermen and dealers in immature fish.
Another UPDF officer, who preferred anonymity, said "illegal fishing and export of immature fish was rampant in Masaka and Kalangala Islands for export to Rwanda through Mpondwe border point as well as Ishasha and Bunagana to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) but that has been curtailed."
The source said the massive crackdown on immature fish dealers, including the well-known rally driver Ponsiano Lwakataka, who was accused of running stores of immature fish in Kasensero in Kyebe Sub-county in Rakai District and Mpondwe in Kasese District, for export to Congo.
Lwakataka was charged with illegal possession of immature fish in March this year following arrest at Masaka High Court by the UPDF as he attempted to pick his wife and brother who had been granted bail on the same charges by Masaka Magistrate's Court.
Fisheries experts say a six month ban on harvesting immature fish is sufficient to allow them grow.
However, fish stocks appear to have been on a recovery trend even before the UPDF deployment, according to sector experts.
Presenting a paper at the African Great Lakes Conference in May this year in Entebbe, titled: "Dynamics of Fish Stocks of Commercial Importance in Lake Victoria, East Africa: Implications for Management", Robert Kayanda, the director at Tanzania Fisheries Research Institute (TAFIRI), said acoustic surveyshad showed an increase in the total biomass ( the total weight of a group or stock of fish) in the lake from 2.9 million tons of fish in 2014 to almost 3 .2 Million tons in 2015, with majority being dagaa.
Nile Perch, which was introduced in the lake in the 1950's, reduced from 1.6 million tonnes in 2000 to 1.1million tonnes in 2015, while dagaa rose considerably over the last decade from 20% of the total stock (2.7million tonnes) to 41 % during the same period under review, he said.
However, he noted that there had been little stock assessment for the Tilapia fish.
Data from the Directorate of Fisheries Resources in the Agriculture Ministry also shows that the total fish captured in Uganda fell by 14.6% from 461,730 tonnes in 2015 to 394, 224 tonnes in 2016 as a result of reduced catches of Nile Perch.
However, catches of Tilapia and small fish types increased. Overall, capture of fisheries from the lake remained the major contributor to total fish production, accounting for 77%.
On the other hand, aquaculture production grew by 5.4% from 111,033 metric tonnes in 2014 to 117,000 metric tonnes in 2015.
On the export front, fish volumes to the international market decreased from 18,785 tonnes in 2015 to 16,168 tonnes in 2016, with the majority of the volumes destined to the European Union.
Consequently, this led to a decline in export earnings from US$134.791 million to US$113.0 million during the same period under review.
This, however, is still far below the 36,616 tonnes exported in 2005, earning the country over US$143 million.
Fish factories re-open
The Independent has also established that two fish processing firms that had closed their operations more than a decade ago citing reduction in fish have since resumed operations. These includes; Gomba Fish Industries in Jinja and Four Ways popularly known as Ngege Limited in Luzira, a Kampala suburb signalling relieve to fish sub-sector. More than half of the country's 23 fish processing and exporting firms have closed their operations in the past decade partly as a result of declining fish supplies.
"We may not have the figures yet but the fact is that fish production in Lake Victoria has improved since the UPDF was deployed there," Ovia Katiti Matovu, executive director at the Uganda Fish Processors and Exporters Association, told The Independent.
However, she noted that competition between local demand and fish processing firms for fish remains high amidst decline in fish prices. Uganda mainly exports Nile Perch while Tilapia is sold to local and regional markets.
"We have a very big difference before and now since UPDF was deployed on the lake; catches of large fish have increased," Bachi Sudaice, a fisherman at Masese Fish Landing Site says, holding a Nile Perch weighing more than 20kgs.
He said the presence of strong surveillance on the lake had resulted into a reduction in the catch of small fish amidst high demand in the neighbouring countries such as Kenya.
He added that there's also need to crack down on dealers of illegal nets to as to completely eliminate illegal fishing activities.
"I wish the military could continue staying on the lake because those fishermen who failed to meet the requirements are no longer fishing," said Bosco Kalunga, a UPDF representative at Kasenyi Fish Landing Site, who has been in the fishing business for the past two decades.
He said while there are high fish volumes in the lake, the majority of fishermen do not have the required fishing gear and lack capital to invest in acquiring acceptable sizes of nets and boats.
The recovery trend appears to be similar in Tanzania and Kenya.
In neighbouring Tanzania, Mara Regional Commissioner Charles Mlingwa, in May 2017 told fish processors who had suspended operations in the region due to lack of fish that there was no longer need for factories to remain closed, as fish stocks had increased in the lake as a result of increased patrols on Lake Victoria.
Over the past three years, two fish processing firms, Prime Catch Export Limited and Mara Fish Limited suspended operations, while Musoma Fish Processors was said to have reduced production volumes.
But not all sections of the population is contented with the UPDF operations on Lake Victoria. For instance in Masaka, residents of Mumpu and Mutante landing sites in Buwunga Sub-Country have been up in arms over the UPDF's plan to evict them.
UPDF has always claimed that the two landing sites are not gazetted. Masaka District LC V Chairperson, Jude Mbabaali told Daily Monitor last June that the protection unit's plan to evict the residents, numbering over 1,000 , at the landing sites has no legal basis.
Further, majority of the fishermen in the area have abandoned fishing as they are unable to acquire the specified fishing gears, said Francis Kimuli, the chairperson of Buwunga Sub-County.
"The legal fishing gears are expensive and our local fishermen cannot afford them, but if the government supports them, it will be one way of fighting the vice and helping them earn a living," he said.
Fisheries sub-sector contributes 3% of Uganda's national Gross Domestic Product and 12% to agricultural GDP, according to the agriculture ministry.
It also employs up to 1.2 million people directly and over 3.5 million people indirectly. Fish accounts for over 50% of animal protein in food, with each Ugandan consuming an average 8 kg of fish per year.
Despite the apparent success, it remains unclear if and how government plans to maintain UPDF's deployment on Lake Victoria. It also remains unclear on how much the government is spending to maintain the momentum of fighting illegal fishing.
Kayanda says the target biomass should be 1.4 million tonnes with optimal catch of 264,000 tonnes but to reach this level, there's need to reduce the current catch to 223,000 tonnes and then climb slowly to optimal catch.
"There's need to reduce the amount of immature Nile Perch caught from 40% currently to 20%, by developing and implementing a regional strategy to prevent trading in immature fish," he said.
He said there was also need to completely eradicate small hooks from the lake, establish and gazette new closed areas where no fishing is permitted and strengthen enforcement of compliance to fisheries regulations.
"Affirmative action to eradicate illegal trade of undersized, immature Nile perch to neighbouring regional markets should be taken," he said, adding that fishing gears that disrupt or damage nests should also be regulated.
Rukuunya said government had revised the National Fisheries Policy of 2004 into the National Fisheries and Aquaculture Policy, which is currently before cabinet for approval, with a vision of seeing a modern, productive, profitable and sustainable fisheries and aquaculture sector.
He said the government is also promoting aquaculture in a bid to reduce pressure on the Lake.
"So far aquaculture is doing very well; growing at an average of 8% per annum," he said, adding that the production is estimated to have increased from 5,000 metric tonnes in 2004 to over 100,000 tonnes in 2014.
He said the government's target is to increase production from aquaculture to 300,000 metric tonnes by 2020.
Vincent Ssempijja, the agriculture minister, said earlier this year that the government will revive the fisheries sub sector using a number of measures - ranging from reforming the fisheries management and directorate, procurement and issuance of fishing vessel identification number plates, registration of all boats and the recruitment of 10 fisheries inspectors at every border post to curb illegal fishing and trade.
This article was funded by a grant from the African Centre for Media Excellence.