Gains, losses in three-year fight against illegal fishing

Wednesday February 19 2020



By Monitor Team

At Bukakkata Landing Site in Masaka District, fishermen dock their boats filled with both Nile Perch and tilapia.
Waiting on the shore are fish traders wearing white gumboots and white coats waiting to offload the Nile Perch that has turned profitable for many traders. It is evident that all the boats are fully loaded with fish.
Despite this milestone, a section of fishermen such as Mr Ezekiel Ssekabira complains that increased fish stocks have instead affected the price of fish.
“We incur a lot of expenses in the process of catching fish yet the profits we get are miserably low,” he says
Currently, Mr Ssekabira says fish processing and exporting companies buy a kilogramme of Nile Perch between Shs4,500 and Shs5,000, down from Shs10,000 a year ago.
But Mr Sulaiman Ssempebwa, a fish trader at Busega Market in Kampala, says despite increased fish stocks, the price of fish has remained high in most urban fish markets.
“It is true fish stocks have drastically increased but since the price of fish is currently determined by a few moneyed individuals in the fish business, the consumer continues to buy it at a high price,” he says
“May be those who buy fish cheaply get it from friends of soldiers deployed on the lake,” Mr Ssempebwa adds.
A kilogramme of Nile Perch at Busega fish market in Kampala currently costs Shs12,000 while a kilo of tilapia goes for Shs8,000. However, traders say the prices are not static.
Mr Samuel Kizito, a resident of Buwama Town in Mpigi District, says despite the high prices, he can afford to buy fish for his family .
“I had spent almost two years without buying fish, not because my family members don’t like it, but it has been very expensive. Sometimes a kilogramme of Nile Perch was selling at Shs18,000 or Shs20,000 but it currently costs Shs12,000, which is relatively cheaper, and we expect it to continue going down,” he says.
The fish stocks, especially for Nile Perch, had significantly reduced in size, which in January 2017 forced President Museveni to deploy soldiers under the Fisheries Protection Unit (FPU) to fight illegal fishing on all major lakes in the country.
The deployment of soldiers followed a survey by National Fisheries Resources Institute, indicating that Nile Perch catches declined by 46 per cent between 2011 and 2015. The same survey showed that tilapia catches were lower by 38 per cent during the same period.
While Uganda’s fish exports rose from $85 million (about Shs310 billion) in 2003 to $141 million (about Shs517b) in 2006, they declined to $118 million (about Shs430b) in 2015.
The situation also forced several fish processing and exporting companies out of business.


Lt Col James Nuwagaba, the FPU commandant, says during the three years of their operations, they have registered challenges and some remarkable achievements.
Among the achievements, Lt Col Nuwagaba says fish stocks have increased from 30 per cent to 70 per cent in the last three years.
“This data is proper and scientific. And since the fish stocks have increased, the diet of Ugandans is gradually improving. At least a kilogramme of Nile Perch goes for Shs8,000, which is affordable to an ordinary Ugandan,” he says.
Lt Col Nuwagaba says when their operations began, the President gave them clear guidelines and they have followed them to the letter.
“He [Museveni] told us to begin with Lake Victoria because he wanted some factories that had closed to reopen, then we extend to other lakes. We began with Lake Victoria, Lake Edward, George and Kyoga. Since we share Lake Edward with our neighbours –the Congolese, they had taken it over and Ugandans weren’t gaining anything from the lake,” he says.
“The 13 fish factories that were closed have since reopened and all employees who had been laid off have since come back,” Lt Col Nuwagaba adds.
He says the number of foreigners, including Rwandans, Congolese and Tanzanians, has drastically gone down.
“Uganda had 58 per cent of the foreign population on its waters while the local fishermen were only 22 per cent. This implies that Ugandans had been denied jobs. But all those jobs have been regained after registration of both fishermen and boats,” he says
Before the deployment of soldiers, Lt Col Nuwagaba says insecurity was high on water bodies as many criminals could flee the mainland and hide at landing sites and islands.
“Some islands had become hideouts for criminals but since we came in, security has improved because we flushed out criminals but we have never heard parliamentarians applauding us; they instead insult us,” he says.
Lt Col Nuwagaba further says operations against illegal fishing have given the line ministry an opportunity to sensitise fishing communities on how to conserve the environment by not littering and polluting the lakes .
“I can firmly say that the relationship between the soldiers and fishing community has improved. Civilians used to fear us but they now work hand in hand with my team and sometimes it is them [fishermen] who inform the soldiers that their colleagues have illegal fishing gear and boats,” he says.
He, however, admits that some mistakes have been made during the operations where individual soldiers torture and beat up fishermen suspected in engaging in illegal fishing. Nevertheless, Lt Col Nuwagaba insists some soldiers act in self-defence.
“No civilian has ever been charged for attacking a soldier, which is wrong. I was once stoned by some fishermen but no one has ever come up to defend us yet soldiers are also human beings,” he reveals.
Of the 150 soldiers that FPU started with in 2017, Lt Col Nuwagaba says 46 soldiers have been charged in the court martial over various offences while others have been dismissed from the army.

Operation. Illegal fishing gear is burnt at
Operation. Illegal fishing gear is burnt at Kisenyi Landing Site in Buikwe District in 2018. PHOTO BY DENIS EDEMA

What ministry says

Through registration of fishermen and their boats, Mr Edward Rukunya, the director of fisheries in the Ministry of Agriculture, says government has been able to raise Shs1.2 billion in revenue.
“When UPDF operations began, we collected Shs460m, which rose to Shs800m in 2018. Just last year, we generated Shs3b as revenue, which is good progress,” he says.
According Lt Col Nuwagaba, some politicians have been a big stumbling block in the fight against illegal fishing as they defend wrongdoers.
“Some politicians are dealing in illegal fishing. That’s why they keep making noise whenever their agents are arrested,” he says. In a period of three years, Lt Col Nuwagaba says at least 50,000 illegal boats have been destroyed, tonnes of illegal nets burnt and more than 2,000 fishermen arrested and prosecuted.
Last December, Parliament passed a motion, calling for immediate withdraw of soldiers from the lakes, claiming that they torture fishermen suspected of engaging in illegal fishing.
Legislators representing fishing communities around lakes Victoria, Kyoga, Albert, George and Edward have been raising the issue of UPDF brutality at the different sittings of Parliament. But the soldiers say they can only leave after getting orders from the commander-in-chief, President Museveni, who deployed them.
The FPU commander in eastern region, Maj Joseph Ssebukera, says among the challenges they face are stores in trading centres around Lake Victoria that sell illegal fishing gear such as mono filaments nets, cast nets and hook liners.


Changing tactics

In eastern region alone, Maj Ssebukera says, 15,000 fishermen have been arrested in three years over illegal fishing, some of whom have been taken to court while others have been cautioned. He says some fishermen have of late adopted a new tactic where they sink their illegal canoes to hoodwink the soldiers.
“Some fishermen have vowed never to quit illegal fishing but we are watching them. We are also changing tactics, we do patrols while dressed in civilian attire. So, we hope to ambush them and catch them in their tracks,” Maj Ssebukera reveals.
According to Capt Nathan Abaho, the FPU commander in Kalangala Islands, initially they were carrying out operations with members of beach management units and local leaders, but this was later dropped since the latter were alerting illegal fishermen to evade arrests.
“We now resorted to on-spot operations, which have yielded some good results. We have since closed over more than 10 landing sites where we discovered that illegal fishing gear was being used,” he says.
Mr Samson Mugaya, a fisherman at Semawundo Landing Site in Bufumira Sub-county, Kalangala, says FPU operations have increased fish stocks, especially Nile Perch, in the lake.
“Before the soldiers came, we could not get a fish that weighs 25kg and above as it is today. I pray that they stay around for some years so that illegal fishing is completely defeated,” he says. Mr Mugaya, however, asks government to subsidise recommended fishing gear so that ordinary fishermen can afford it.
“Some colleagues claim they use illegal fishing gear because they cannot afford that recommended by government. Such an excuse can be addressed if there is a clear programme to assist people at landing sites like they do for farmers through Operation Wealth Creation,” he says.
Lt Julius Ankunda, the officer-in-charge of operations on Lake Kyoga, says once the ban on fishing is lifted on the lake, each landing site will have a maximum of 10 registered fishermen as one of the measures to save the lake from depletion. Fishing on the lake was suspended last April to allow soldiers register all fishermen and their boats.
“We are going to register a team at each fishing landing site, who will help us vet and register fishermen on all landing sites,” he says.
Lt Ankunda says those who transport fish will also get work permits and letters of transit.
Mr David Kor, the former chairperson of the beach management unit at Kanara Landing Site on Lake Albert, says FPU has never come to Ntoroko District.
Mr Kor says the landing site is now managed by fisheries officers at the district who have failed to enforce the law, leading to depletion of fish stocks in the lake.
He says before BMU operations were halted, fishermen used to take 10 tonnes of fish to Kampala every month but this is no longer the case due low catches of fish.
Ms Christine Ntembe, a resident at Kanara Landing Site, says fish is small in size, attributing it to poor fishing practices on the lake.
The Ntoroko District acting fisheries officer, Mr Kule Isambiro, says part of Lake Albert is not patrolled by UPDF soldiers.
“As district authorities, we don’t have any enforcement team to protect the lake, we see illegal activities being done but our hands are tied,” Mr Isambiro says.

About fish laws

Lakes, rivers and swamps account for 44,000 Km2 of Uganda’s surface area of 241,000 Km2. For several decades, the management and development of the fisheries resources in Uganda has been guided by the Fisheries Act Cap 197 of 1964.
The current legal instrument is outdated and cannot effectively guide sustainable management of the sector. This has created avenues for fishing illegalities on Uganda’s lakes that resulted into a sharp decline in fish stocks.
However , government is in the process of enacting the Fisheries & Aquaculture Bill, 2018, which will help enhance regulation and ensure sustainable fish trade.

About uganda’s fish exports

Since 1990’s, the fish industry in Uganda has evolved over time becoming the second non-traditional export earner for the country and employing over 1.3 million people directly.
Records from Bank of Uganda show that in 2018, Uganda’s export earnings from fish were the highest the country has received in the last 20 years. The country exported fish worth $171 million (Shs622 billion), the highest revenue the country has ever earned from this commodity. Highest volume Records further indicate that the volumes in 2018 were the highest at 24,545 metric tonnes since 2008 when the country exported 27,454 metric tonnes.
The fishing sub sector contributes 2.6 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and 12 per cent to agricultural GDP. This had declined because of immature and illegal fishing methods which depleted the resources.

Compiled by Al-Mahdi Ssenkabirwa, Alex Ashaba, Felix Basiime, Eve Muganga, Sylvester Ssemugenyi, Simon Emwamu & Denis Edema