Juma Ssesanga, 28, a fisherman, stands at Wairaka landing site in Jinja, on the shores of L. Victoria, peering at a canoe that is sailing ashore to dock.
“That boat is for Nile perch,” he says. “They spent the night in the water. Unfortunately you will see very little fish there. Life is becoming difficult here.”
Behind him hundreds of fishermen sit under trees, listening to government officials explain a commercial fish production option, cage culture, which would enable them grow fish in the lake instead of solely relying on capture catches. In cage culture, fish is farmed under confinement in large waters such as lakes, in boxes known as cages.
“Capture fishery is declining. We are going to rear fish in the lake,” Dr Lucas Mwebaza Ndaula, a senior research officer at the National Fisheries Resources Research Institute (NaFIRRI), tells the fishermen.
“You can form groups and pool resources to join this kind of farming. Within six to eight months, you will be getting money and after three seasons some of you can chose to become independent,” he adds.
By now Ssesanga had turned his full attention to the village meeting. “I don’t think fishermen can afford that [cage culture],” he says. “And if they give us loans we will end up in jail [for defaulting]. We even hear government has sold the lake!” he adds.
Chinese on L. Victoria
Ssesanga was among the suspicious fishermen who, in early March, saw some Chinese lower cages into L. Victoria, just next to those a Zimbabwean farmer put there seven years ago. SON Fish Farm Ltd, a member of the Zimbabwe based Lake Harvest group, has already finished its pilot study and targets to produce 3,000 tonnes of tilapia by the end of 2012, and 10,000 tonnes by 2018, according to information on the company’s website.
The Chinese on the other hand have just lowered 50 cages of 25 square metres next to the headquarters of NaFIRRI, increasing suspicion among fishers that their lake has been sold .
“Government should not fear to tell us that it has already sold the lake,” Ssesanga said. According to NaFIRRI, the Chinese were contracted by government to carry out research, aimed at increasing fish production.
Eight of the cages have been stocked with fish fry, in a smaller mesh net size of 0.5mm. When the fish attain a reasonable size, they will be transferred to the mesh size of 1.5 to 2.5cm where they will be fed to maturity. The plan is to stock each cage with 10,000 fish.
“These cages are purely for trial and demonstration,” said Barry Kamira, a NaFIRRI research associate and coordinator of the project between NaFIRRI and the Chinese research team.
L. Victoria has not been sold
Rumours that the lake had been sold off gained national prominence when early last year, during presidential campaigns, President Museveni’s main challenger, Kizza Besigye was quoted saying that the government had sold lakes Victoria and Kyoga.
Suspicion, sometimes fueled by local leaders, has compelled NaFIRRI to explain government intentions with cage culture.
“No one will ever sell your lake. The Chinese you are seeing have brought new technology for us to learn cage farming,” Dr Ndaula told the fishers. “Don’t hurt them. Please don’t vandalise their cages,” he pleaded.
Fish is Uganda’s second highest forex earner, after coffee. High demand for fish, driven by local population growth and the growth of both regional and international markets, has led to over exploitation of fish in Uganda’s lakes over the past decade. Regulations made it illegal to catch immature fish but the practice has continued. Export volumes have fallen by over 30 per cent from 23,000 tonnes in 2008 to 15,417 in 2011. Export revenue too has fallen from $117m in 2008 to $83.3 in 2010. In 2005 exports were at a high of 39,000 tonnes and have since then been declining annually.
Areas out of bounds
Government has in recent months increased marine patrols on L. Victoria to stop the catching of immature fish. Arrests, detentions and prosecutions of fishers over illegal activities have increased. But government contends this is insufficient to increase fish production to effectively satisfy the market. It is now promoting private investment in aquaculture both on land and in large waters.
To think that Uganda can sell the 68,800 square mile Lake Victoria, shared by the three East African states including Kenya and Tanzania, seems outrageous. But when the new government plan for aquaculture is implemented, some parts of the lake will inevitably be out of bounds for public fishing, at least where the cages will be.
The draft National Development Policy for Aquaculture Parks in Uganda (2012) calls for annual increase of aquaculture production by 300,000 tonnes by 2016, up from 90,000. This will be through setting up of concentrated fish farming areas, known as aquaculture parks, on land and in water. These will then be leased out to private investors.
NaFIRRI has started identifying suitable cage culture areas in Uganda’s lakes. Interestingly some fishers have already tried cage culture, especially in Jinja. The fishers’ key concerns are capital and security.
Jinja Fish Farmers Association (JFFA), based in Masese, in 2011 received cages from the National Agricultural Advisory Services (Naads) to rear fish on L. Victoria. The fish was stolen before the first harvest. Fishers in other landing sites, who were beneficiaries of the Naads project, could also not guard their fish against thieves.
Fishers agree that fish is now scarce, with capture catches hardly rewarding the fishing effort. On the other hand, apart from being hard to guard in open waters, cage culture seems expensive for them to venture into. It costs a minimum of Shs2m to make one cage of 16 square metres - less of stock.
“It will not be fishermen to rear this fish,” Ssesanga noted. “It will be other people with money,” he added.
But Majid Magumba, the chairman of JFFA, believes the options are limited.
“There is no more fish in the lake. We have to try this technology if we are to continue living here,” he says.