Commercial fishing activities are taking a new twist in Lake Turkana, three months after an outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the main external fish market for most Kenyan traders.
Some of the Beach Management Units (BMUs) at the desert lake have scaled down operations to minimise losses due to falling fish prices after some countries bordering DRC introduced stringent health restrictions to contain the spread of the dreaded disease.
The traders are now incurring losses running into millions of shillings as fish prices take a nose dive due to an unstable market.
"The DRC is our main external market for fish and the outbreak of Ebola virus in the country has impacted negatively on our businesses," said John Loiritei Mame, chairman of Impressa group.
He said fish prices at the Lake shore have dropped from Sh600 to Sh250 as fishmongers sell the produce at throw-away prices in the saturated local market.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a total of 110 Ebola cases have been reported in DRC as at September 1, 2020 which have claimed 47 lives.
It is the eleventh Ebola virus disease (EVD) to be reported in DRC since 1976 and the confirmed cases continue to increase as the outbreak spreads. The DRC Ministry of Health is leading the fight in affected zones with the support of WHO and other partners.
The Kenya government has been conducting routine screening of all travellers at entry points, including Busia and Malaba.
The outbreak of Ebola in DRC has dealt a blow to the fishing industry in Turkana after it procured equipment worth Sh51 million and an offshore patrol motor boat to enhance income generation from fishing.
"Income generation from fish around Lake Turkana had increased from Sh12 million to Sh16 million while production had improved from 31 tonnes to 35 tonnes in the last six months but the outbreak of Ebola in DRC will impact negatively on our business," said Leah Napokol Epat, the Impressa group treasurer, one of the beneficiaries of the scheme.
Among equipment the county government acquired include 12,661 fishing nets and 15,000 floaters that were distributed to fishermen in the 30 landing Beach Management Units along Lake Turkana.
But the fishmonger said the business has nose-dived after Ebola returned to DRC which is their main external market.
According to the BMUs, South Sudan, Nairobi and Kisumu are other main markets for fish from the fresh water lake.
"Local traders are taking advantage of lack of our main market in DRC to exploit fishmongers by offering them low prices," said Stephen Ekal Ekuwom, a BMU official.
A trade assessment report by Indian Ocean Commission indicates that DRC imports an average of 89,000 tonnes of fish mainly from Lake Turkana to meet its domestic consumption.
"Income generation from fish around Lake Turkana had increased from Sh12 million to Sh16 million while the production had improved from 31 tonnes to 35 tonnes in the last six months but lack of the market might reverse the gains," said Napokol Epat, the group treasurer.
An average of 15,000 kilos of fish are sold to the Nairobi market and 6,000 to Kitale monthly.
But commercial fishing activities which form alternative sources of income to members of Turkana community and their Merille counterpart from Ethiopia face an uncertain future due to dwindling stocks caused by heavy siltation and intrusion of fish breeding zones.
The scramble for a greater fish share is driving most BMUs to venture into deep waters/gulfs in pursuit of superior catch, resulting in often deadly confrontations and loss of fishing gear.
Environmentalists and civil society groups in the region attribute the woes facing commercial fishing activities at Lake Turkana to construction of Gibe III dam on the Omo River in Ethiopia, which supplies 80 per cent of Lake Turkana's water.
They argue that the dam has interfered with fish breeding zones in River Omo and resulted in a drop in the amount of fish in Lake Turkana.
"Water volume in Lake Turkana, which is a source of livelihood to more than 20,000 families through commercial fishing activities, is likely to decline by 60 percent in the next five to seven years as a result of construction of the Gibe dam by the Ethiopian government," said Eliud Emeri, Turkana Civil Society group leader.
"Construction of the dam will interfere with marine life, especially breeding zones at Todonyang area," said Mr Emeri.
River Omo drains 90 per cent of its water into Lake Turkana. The Ethiopian government is almost completing construction of the dam to generate electricity and for irrigation purposes.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) has listed national parks at Lake Turkana among world heritage sites in danger.
The World Heritage Committee has added Lake Turkana National Park to the list of 54 endangered sites, citing threats posed to the lake by Ethiopia's Gibe III dam and Kuraz Sugar project.
Lake Turkana, the world's largest desert lake, joined the World Heritage List in 1997.
According to Kenya Marine Fisheries Research Institute, Lake Turkana has a potential of generating Sh3 billion annually if proper management plans are put in place.
It, however, cites interference of fish breeding zones, siltation, use of improper fishing gear and poor handling processes as some of the factors that contribute to waning quantity of fish and revenue generation.