Will Fisheries Act steady the ship of local fishers?

Women spread silver fish (mukene) to dry at a landing site in Jinja last week. President Museveni last month assented to the Fisheries & Aqua-culture Act meant to, among others, consolidate and reform the law relating to fisheries and fish products. PHOTO | IVAN KAMANA WALUNYOLO 

What you need to know:

President Museveni last month assented to the Fisheries & Aqua-culture Act, whose plank is to consolidate and reform the law relating to the management of fisheries, fisheries products and aquaculture. This Act is meant to consolidate and reform the law relating to fisheries and fish products; to provide for the conservation, sustainable management, utilisation and development of the fisheries sub-sector; to provide for the integrated management of the fisheries sub-sector in order to facilitate the achievement of sustainable increases in economic, social and environmental benefits from fisheries, among other roles. Emmanuel Mutaizibwa explains the Act.

How can the Act deal with the greatly diminished marine ecosystem to sustain Uganda’s domestic and export fish demands?
The fish sub-sector faces specific sticky issues, including rising water levels precipitated by climate change that have led to deoxygenation and the death of large stocks of Nile Perch, shoe-string funding to the sub-sector and the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) Marine Unit, which has committed egregious abuses against the local population.
In the last 15 years, the fisheries sub-sector pivoted the Ugandan economy as the second largest foreign exchange earner, contributing 2.6 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and 12 percent to agricultural GDP.
A major source of the country’s rich cuisine, it also provided employment to peasantry communities that live on the banks of lakes and rivers.
Beyond the jargon, does the Act spare no effort in lifting the lifestyle of fishermen living on the margins?
It is true that stellar figures have done little to transform the lives of the families and men who spend the night in the punishing cold, battling howling gales and raging waters while paddling dugout canoes to eke a living across Uganda’s lakes and rivers. To escape this punishment, fishermen indulge in a hedonistic lifestyle—alcohol and risky sexual behavior, especially at islands dotted with corrugated metal shacks.
In 2017, things took a turn for the worse when the UPDF marines section began to patrol lakes to enforce a ban on irregular fishing methods.

It was the fishing community on the islands that largely bore the brunt of the lash as some rogue soldiers joined extortionist cartels. Scores of fishermen—especially those who inhabit islands across Lake Victoria—lost their lives at the hands of the soldiers.
Before the army began patrolling the lakes, fish stocks had dwindled as exports cratered and factories shuttered. From its peak in 2002, the invasive Nile Perch stock dropped in half by 2008 as a result of immature fishing.
The National Fisheries Resources Research Institute report on the 2018 hydro-acoustic survey concluded that the increase in fish size in Lake Victoria “may possibly be attributed to the current effort to combat illegality using the military. It should be noted, however, that such interventions can have other undesirable effects.”
So will sustainable fishing remain a pipe dream?
Whereas the army has no place on the lake, fishing communities must adhere to strict fishing methods to be able to sustain this infinite resource.
Addressing this human rights concern is Section 14 of the Act, which provides for the establishment of the Fisheries Monitoring, Control and Surveillance Unit within the Directorate. According to the Act, this unit shall comprise persons appointed by the Public Service Commission, and its functions include monitoring, controlling and carrying out surveillance, including the enforcement of compliance with this Act and any other written law relating to activities under this Act; protect fish and their environment, fish products and aquatic flora and fauna against fisheries malpractices among others.
Will the surveillance unit turn into a classic barking dog with no bite?
On paper, no. The officers of the surveillance unit shall have powers of inspection and search, which shall include the power to require any person to produce a licence or permit; inspect fishing gear, fish, fish products and similar items; require any person to provide name and address, and produce identification; stop any vehicle, aircraft, vessel or other means of conveyance, and enter and inspect and require production of manifests and similar documents and answers to questions relating to cargo.
The unit shall also inspect and search or authorise any person subordinate to him or her to inspect and search any baggage, package, vehicle, vessel, tent, premises or property belonging to or occupied by that person or any person in his or her employment. This provision strips the UPDF marines unit of its supervisory role across Uganda’s lakes and rivers.
It came after lawmakers representing fishing communities protested the brutality of the army, calling for their suspension contained in a motion passed by the 10th Parliament in December 2019.
The surveillance unit also enjoys powers of hot pursuit and ‘pursuant to Uganda’s rights under international law to board a foreign or Ugandan vessel outside the fishing waters and to bring that vessel back within the fishing waters if the authorised officer has reasonable grounds to suspect that it has been used to commit an offence within the fishing waters.’
This section could drive a wedge between Uganda and neighbouring Kenya beyond the contest for the tiny Migingo island, which is a sanctuary for shoals of fish species that dart across the Lake.
What are the other key provisions in the Act?
The Act also restricts a vessel, which shall not be used for fishing unless it is registered under the Inland Water Transport Act, 2021; and there is in force, in respect of that vessel, a valid fishing vessel licence.
Section 8 of the Act provides for the Chief Fisheries Officer, who shall in consultation with the minister, undertake management through the issuance of licences, control entry to the fisheries resources and determine the maximum allowed fishing effort in each district, based on available scientific data and where there is no data, a precautionary approach shall be applied.
Section 71 of the Act addresses the question of food safety. It provides that a person shall not use fish feeds in an aquaculture establishment that do not contain all the nutrients in the proportions required for optimum growth of the target fish as prescribed by regulations.
Elsewhere, Section 72 restricts the use of veterinary therapeutic products and medicinal premixes in fish feeds unless the veterinary therapeutic products and medicinal premixes are approved for use by the chief fisheries officer, in consultation with the commissioner responsible for animal health.
To fully exploit the lucrative fish maw market with a growing appetite in Asia worth billions of shillings, Section 85 of the Act streamlines the licensing of fish maw for processing and exports.
For the fishing communities to be able to sustain the livelihoods and traditions passed on through folklore from thousands of years, it must safeguard the environment to be able to sustain the aqua-culture ecosystem as provided in Section 3 of the Act.
What about undersize fishing?
Section 97 of the Act prohibits undersize fishing and anyone found doing so commits an offence and is liable, on conviction, to a fine not exceeding 1,000 currency points or to imprisonment not exceeding three years, or both.
Section 98 of the Act provides a pollution safety net whereby a person who disturbs, injures, poisons, kills or detrimentally affects any fish, fish spawning ground, including any aquatic plant or animal or fish food in any part of the fishing waters, by casting, discharging or allowing to fall, flow or percolate into those waters, oil, chlorinated hydrocarbon, biocide, pesticide, toxic or any other hazardous substance, heavy metal or other material or rubbish; or places any pollutants in a place where, by natural means, they can be washed into or otherwise reach the fishing waters or any water body, commits an offence and is liable, on conviction, to a fine not exceeding 10,000 currency points or to imprisonment not exceeding five years, or both.