An estimated 100 tonnes of fish, mainly Nile Perch, have so far died mysteriously in a space of two months at various landing sites around Lake Victoria, government has revealed.
Ms Joyce Ikwaput Nyeko, the acting director for Fisheries Resources in the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries, said the continuing mass deaths of Nile Perch is causing huge loss of revenue to government.
"... I know we have lost more than 100 tonnes [of fish]; we are still waiting for reports from the field teams and that is how we will also know the revenue we have so far lost," she said during an interview on Tuesday.
A tonne of Nile Perch costs between Shs10m and 15m on the local market depending on the size of the fish. This implies that about Shs1.5b has been lost so far.
Since December, communities living in and around the shores of Lake Victoria have been complaining over the growing number of dead fish, especially Nile Perch, being washed ashore.
The most affected landing sites are in the districts of Wakiso, Buikwe, Buvuma, Kalangala, Masaka and Kyotera.
The dead fish are not only an eyesore but also emit an offensive odour.
The reason for the mass deaths of seemingly healthy fish remains unclear, leading to speculation of possible poisoning, limited oxygen or adverse temperatures on Lake Victoria.
This has greatly affected the price of fish both on the local and international market. Currently, the price of Nile Perch has reduced from Shs12,000 per kg to Shs7,000 while Tilapia costs Shs4,500 per kg up from Shs8,000.
Ms Nyeko said the Covid -19 induced lockdown, floods, and water levels, had already affected the fisheries sector and the current mysterious death of Nile Perch is exacerbating the problem.
"It is true we are not doing well as a sector, we are already battling with low demand for fish both on the local and international markets as a result of the raging coronavirus pandemic but we are hopeful that the situation will soon normalise," she said.
According to Mr Fred Sserwadda, a fisherman at Mayanzi Landing site in Kigungu, Entebbe Municipality, this is the first time they are experiencing mass deaths of fish in the area.
"At first we thought it was poison but then if it was poison, all fish species could die, but is only Nile Perch which is being wiped out," he said.
Mr Ivan Kalinzi, a fisherman at Kasensero Landing Site in Kyotera District, said the first time they saw dead Nile Perch floating on water was on January 25.
"We found Nile Perch of between 5 to 10kg dead and floating on top of water. We wonder why it's only the big fish that are dying as the small ones such as tilapia and silver fish survive," he said in an interview on Tuesday.
Mr Peter Kaali, who owns boats at the same landing site, told Daily Monitor that the issue of fish dying mysteriously is beyond their control and asked government to carry out an in-depth investigation.
"We have realised that it can't be poison killing our fish because other fish species such as tilapia are not affected," he explained.
Mr Tom Bukenya, the commissioner for fisheries regulations and quality control assurance, said investigations are still ongoing to establish what is exactly killing the Nile Perch.
"We have heard allegations from different people that it could be poison but the first samples we took to laboratory ruled out poisoning, further investigations are being carried out to establish what is exactly causing this mass deaths of Nile Perch," he said.
Mr Bukenya also discouraged fishermen from collecting the dead fish and selling it, saying it may not be good for human consumption.
Mr Joshua Tabule, the chairperson of the fishing community at Old Bridge in Jinja City, said the continued mysterious death of Nile Perch has scared away other fish species thus threatening their livelihoods.
"We are hardly catching these days, they are not there. It seems the rotting Nile Perch have contaminated the water, forcing other fish species to hide," he said.
Hajj Hamidu Ssemujju, a fish dealer at Lambu Landing Site in Masaka, said on average, locals collect 700kg of dead fish daily from the shores.
"Some people have tried to fly the collected fish and prepare it for food but when it is put on fire, it breaks into small pieces and this has discouraged people from eating it," he said.
People eating dead fish
Mr Anthony Terilaga, a fisherman in Njeru Municipality, Buikwe District, said since some scientists assured them that the dead fish is not poisonous, people can collect and smoke it .
"People are eating it although some have complained that they get stomach upsets," he added . Mr Godfrey Ssenyonga Kambugu, the chairperson of the Association of Fisheries and Lake Users of Uganda (AFALU), believes the Nile Perch is dying due to lack of oxygen in the water as result of many effluents being discharged into the lake.
"Unless we tackle this problem [of dumping effluents into the lake] head on, we are yet to experience a more difficult situation, which may affect all species and the water itself," he warned.
Mr Kambugu said many processing factories are operating below capacity due to dwindling supply of Nile Perch.
"Many of our members have tied up their boats because there is no fish in the lake," he added .
His assertions are corroborated by Mr Moses Ssemambo, the acting fisheries officer for Masaka District.
"When the lake flooded, it absorbed a lot of waste, which rot and started competing for oxygen with the fish. So the decomposing waste availed manure to algae covering a big surface of the water body and leading to lack of oxygen in the water, which is causing death of some fish," he explained.
Before President Museveni deployed soldiers to curb illegal fishing on lakes in January 2017, there were reports of fishermen using poison to catch fish which was exposing fish consumers to risks of contracting gastric cancer.
Impact on exports
Whereas the government reported an increase in fish stock since the Uganda People's Defence Forces began the clampdown on illegal fishing, alongside growing cage fish farming, Bank of Uganda statistics released in September 2020 showed Uganda's exports had declined by more than 5,000 tonnes.
This resulted in a Shs124b fish export revenue shortfall. Lake Victoria is a vital resource shared by Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. In 2017, scientists warned that Lake Victoria was under threat of dying.
They blamed overfishing and pollution for severely damaged fish stocks.
Compiled by Al-Mahd Ssenkabirwa, Denis Edema, Eve Muganga, Ambrose Musasizi & Wilson Kutamba