Kenya: How Trawling is Destroying Marine Life in Lake Victoria

A group of fishermen row their wooden boats towards Koginga beach in Homa Bay after a fishing expedition in Lake Victoria that normally takes hours.

Their faces show all is not well as they head back to the beach with hardly any fish stocks to sell to traders in nearby towns, who by now must be waiting to haggle for the choicest picks from last night's catch.

Fish trade is facing challenges, which include dwindling stocks due to activities of rogue fishers and their illegal fishing methods.

Fishermen at Koginga beach who sell tilapia, Nile perch, mudfish and catfish say their daily catch has reduced by more than 70 per cent due to a worsening scramble for fast-dwindling stocks.

Mr Jeremiah Onyuna has been fishing in Lake Victoria for the past 54 years.

The 70-year-old man sets sail for the deeper reaches of the lake at 4am every morning for an expedition that takes at least six hours.

More than 20 years ago, a two-hour catch would fetch him Sh10,000.

"Today, you take to the market fish worth Sh500 after being in the lake for more than five hours. Sometimes the catch reduces to Sh200," he says.

Several other fishermen are also struggling to earn a living from what used to be a lucrative venture.

Mr Collins Okoth warned that if uncontrolled fishing methods continue, they would have a disastrous impact on fish stocks in the lake.

"I have a family that depends on me, so do the other fishermen in the lake. We are all faced with new challenges that should be solved immediately. It is unfortunate the authorities are silent on issues affecting us," Mr Okoth laments.

Dwindling stocks have led fishermen to capture breeding fish and destroy breeding grounds.

Some methods like trawling, which is gaining popularity after it was discovered to be more profitable, not only destroy the lake ecosystem but also threaten to drive some fish species into extinction.

The method is nicknamed bunglu because of the sound produced by water as fishermen hit the water surface with objects to force fish into their nets.

Fishermen in three sub-counties are already using the illegal method, which Homa Bay County Fisheries Executive Aguko Juma and County Fisheries director George Okoth say should be stopped as it destroys fish breeding sites.

According to Mr Juma, fish should swim into the net on their own and not forced in using crude methods such as trawling.

"Fishing should be done in a passive way, where nets are put in the lake and fish allowed to swim into them. In bunglu, which is an active method, fishermen force fish into their nets, which are cast vertically," he says.

Trawling uses one or more fishing lines that are dragged along the bottom of the lake.

Nets are tied behind a moving boat, which then sweep the bottom of the lake from side to side or along a line as they collect fish.

The practice is common in the big oceans but is slowly gaining popularity in Lake Victoria.

Fishermen from Rangwe, Homa Bay and Rachuonyo North sub-counties are accused of using the method, which has already divided fishing communities into two rival groups.

There is a group of fishermen who own boats that have engines. The group came together to pull nets at the bottom of the lake and get more fish.

Those with boats that are not powered by engines feel left out and want the government to take action against their counterparts for trawling the lake.

Those against trawling say the practice will hurt them economically if not controlled.

Besides, other nets cast in the lake are destroyed as the trawling net is pulled along the lakebed.

Homa Bay sub-county Beach Management Units (BMU) chairman Alfred Omondi says the practice began recently during the BMU elections.

He accused some BMU officials of allowing fishermen to use rogue methods to gain support in the elections.

"Now that the election is over, all BMU officials should ensure all activities in the lake conserve and protect marine ecosystems," Mr Omondi says.

Homa Bay County (BMU) chairman Edward Oremo said he had received numerous complaints from fishermen who are opposed to the illegal fishing method. He called on the government to take action against the culprits.

He said non-selective fishing methods are destructive to the marine environment.

"Trawling damages the seafloor and leads to overfishing. These methods destroy various lake features that attract tourists," Mr Oremo said.

Mr Oremo said he had received information that some BMU officials were encouraging the practice.

"Some BMU officials are said to be protecting fishermen who use the new fishing method for their own benefit. I warn beach officials against doing this," he said.

Mr Oremo called on the Kenya Coast Guard Services to step in and help the county beach leadership in the war against trawling and other illegal fishing methods in Lake Victoria.

Mr Juma said his office had contacted the Lake Patrol Unit to take action on fishermen who use the illegal fishing method.

"We shall request the regular police to arrest those encouraging the practice. BMU officials should also take action against fishermen doing the same even if they risk losing their seats," Mr Juma warned.

The county government has also informed the Ministry of Agriculture at the national level on the dangerous fishing method.

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