Why fish stocks have declined despite increased enforcement

Nile Perch on sale at Gaba Landing Site in 2019. Nile Perch is the main fish caught in Lake Victoria but there is concern over declining stocks. PHOTOS / RACHEL MABALA

What you need to know:

  • Despite the military and the ministry of Agriculture reporting an increase of fish stock by 31 per cent last year due to increased enforcement, the fishermen and fish processors say this is not being felt on the ground

Mr Henry Ssekaba with his assistant are busy pulling out 40 gill nets, which they cast a night before, from an area as wide as three football pitches near Lyabaana Island on Lake Victoria in Buvuma District. 
After three hours toiling, Mr Ssekaba catches two Nile Perch.
“Each is like two and half kilogrammes,” he says as he displays the catch.

When he sells the fish, he will get around Shs60,000.
Mr Ssekaba says he will pay his assistant Shs10,000. 
Then a team that pushes the boat to shore will take Shs10,000 and another team that arranges the nets at the shore will take Shs10,000 while Shs10,000 will go to the fuel supplier.
“I will remain with around Shs20,000. People are now here just for survival,” says Mr Ssekaba, who has been fishing for more than 18 years.

When he started fishing, he used to catch 18 kilogrammes of Nile Perch on a bad day.
Mr Ssekaba’s experience is shared by hundreds of fishermen at Lyabaana and other islands in Lake Victoria. 
Nile Perch is the main fish caught in the area. Since the 1950s when Nile Perch was introduced in Uganda, Lake Victoria had been renowned for its huge population of this type as well as silver fish.  
By 2000, the Nile Perch stock had reached as high as 1.5 million.
It drew millions of people to the lakes to make money from Nile Perch whose maw and meat has become lucrative.
According to statistics from the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries, both the domestic consumption and export of fish shot up with a production of an average of 337, 237 tonnes per year.  

Peak of exports
Fish exports more than doubled from 15,000 tonnes (seven per cent of the total fish production) in 2000 to around 39,000 in 2005, which was the highest in that decade.
The domestic consumption too increased from 200,000 tonnes to more than 400,000 in the same period.
By 2007, the annual production of fish was 480,000 tonnes, with 450,000 consumed domestically.

All of a sudden, the fish exports started dropping and by 2010, they had reached 23,000 tonnes annually. The domestic consumption of fish too fell to 360,000 tonnes by 2010, according to statistics from the ministry of Agriculture.
Lake Victoria alone had lost 65 per cent of its fish stock. Lake Victoria, which had a standing total of a million tonnes by 2005, dropped to 350,000 tonnes.
Lake Kyoga, where Uganda used to harvest 185,000 tonnes of fish annually, provided only 35,000 tonnes.
The Nile Perch became hard to find in Lake Albert.
Fish processing factories closed in big numbers and prices dropped too.  

There was a decline in exports of fish to European countries, which had become the major foreign exchange earners.
With European markets literally closed, local processors and dealers exploited the relative peace in the Democratic Republic Congo that had created high demand for smoked fish.
The Congolese didn’t mind about international standards.

Fishermen display their catch following a fishing expedition at a landling site in Entebbe in 2019. 


In July 2014, one of the indigenous fish dealers, Mr Ponsiano Rwakataka, whose trucks had been impounded by the military with immature fish in Kasese District, told Daily Monitor then that most of the traders export immature fish to the Democratic Republic Congo because it was highly profitable and had a ready market.

“What I want is equality before the law. One time, we contacted the Inspector General of Police that they were trucks carrying immature fish. The trucks were impounded but the minister, who is supposed to stop illegal fishing, was the one who made telephone calls to officers to release the trucks,” Mr Lwakataka said.
He added that there were groups that wanted to monopolise the fish trade.

“These people are also dealing in fishing. They want to have monopoly in this trade. Why? The fact is they are also trading in immature fish and we have evidence to that,” Mr Lwakataka said.
Then the fish enforcement officers from the military operated on the road and border points.
In 2015, President Museveni sent them to the water bodies to continue with the enforcement of fishing standards.
Despite the military and the ministry of Agriculture reporting an increase of fish stock by 31 per cent last year due to increased enforcement, the fishermen and fish processors say this is not being felt on the ground.

According to Bank of Uganda data for the period between July 2020 and July 2021, fish exports fell by 7,992 tonnes, a loss valued at Shs100b. In the period between July 2019 and July 2020, Uganda exported 23,141 tonnes worth $146m (Shs518b).
Mr Sujal Goswami, the Uganda Fish Processors and Exporters Association chairperson, says most factories that used to receive 15 to 20 tonnes per day have since dropped to three tonnes in the same period.
The data from the Agriculture ministry for the year 2020 shows that 280,600 tonnes of fish were caught in all water bodies, which is nearly half of what was caught 15 years ago in the same period.              
Mr Salim Kasindi, the head of the fishermen at Lyabaana Island, too says that there is a shortage of fish in the area.
“This island alone used to catch 70 tonnes of Nile Perch a month.  We are now catching less than 25 tonnes. During the period of catching Sardines between January and June, we would harvest 80 tonnes a month. Right now, we can’t get enough for our own food consumption,” Mr Kasindi said.

Many of the fishermen have since left the islands and returned to the main land to practice other forms of agriculture.
“Last year, the fish washed ashore dead. Experts told us that the rising water level made it difficult for them to get oxygen in the depths. We didn’t catch fish for months yet we are in an area renowned for Nile Perch. We reached a point that we relied on food donations from the government to survive,” he said.
Many fishermen who couldn’t survive left. An island that had a population of more than 6,000 people is now left with about half the number.
The residences previously occupied by runaway fishermen have been turned into lodges and brothels.

Fishing boats at Lyabaana Island in Buvuma District on Lake Victoria.

Fishermen’s concerns
Mr John Kikomero, who once owned boats and nets, blames the declining fish stocks on the government, which he says has allowed trawling, a new type of fishing for sardines, which the locals dubbed ‘Hurry Up.’
Trawling is done by large scale fishermen because it requires many nets, lights, manpower and electric equipment.
From their trawler, the fishermen cast trawl nets, which are 10 millimetres, in a circle form covering about a mile and then use bright light at night to attract silver fish. They then haul the nets onto the trawler.
Mr Kikomeko says the nets catch fish indiscriminately, including immature Nile Perch and tilapia.
“They were supposed to catch only silver fish in shallow areas, but they abuse their permits and go into deep water areas where Nile Perch live,” he says.

He says most owners of the trawlers don’t return immature fish in the water, leading to loss of young Nile Perch.
“They claim that when they get immature Nile Perch in the nets, they throw it back in the water. That is a lie. First, Nile Perch is one type of fish that dies in minutes after being caught in the net. Secondly, we see them with immature fish hidden in jerry cans at the landing site, which they sell to traders,” he says. 

 Deadly fishing method
The fishermen allege that wherever the trawling has been practised in Lake Victoria, it is hard to find Nile Perch.
“They started in the Ssenyi area in Buikwe District and Dolwe in Namayingo District. There you can’t find any Nile Perch right now. They have now moved to an island in Buvuma District. We have started noticing the drop in the Nile Perch in areas they operate from,” Mr Kikomeko says.

Small scale fishermen accuse the large scale fishermen of targeting their businesses by cutting floaters on the nets and sinking them to avoid their trawl nets getting entangled in the Nile Perch nets.    
Mr Kikomeko and Mr Ssekaba’s assistant are some of the victims.
“I used to have a boat and nets, but they cut off the floaters and my nets sank. I couldn’t afford to buy a new one. Now I am back to being employed,” Mr Kikomeko says.
Each net costs Shs100,000 and one needs around 40 for a standard boat.


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“When we hold a meeting with them to have discipline on the lake and also reduce the length of their trawl nets to save the fish, they agree on whatever we say, but when we go back to the lake, they continue with these dangerous practices,” he says.   
Silver fish is on high demand among chicken farmers as it provides much needed protein for the growth of the birds, especially broilers and layers.
The fishermen want the government to ban trawling of silver fish and order operators to use the old method of scooping by hand held nets.
Small scale fishermen surviving in the business have to move miles away from the shores to avoid competition and also get Nile Perch.  
Mr Edward Banasula, a fisherman with more than 10 boats, says operating far away from the shore has also become risky due to criminality and costs of operation.
“We have received several cases of people armed and dressed in military fatigue who have found fishermen on the lake and ordered them to hand over the fish even when they have not committed any offence,” he says.
Mr Banasula adds that when victims complain to the security officers, they are told to identify them.
“How do you identify a person who is wearing a mask and covering their head?” he wonders.

He says the military personnel on Lake Victoria focus more on illegal fishing than other crimes, leaving the fishermen operating near the border line with Kenya, Tanzania and isolated areas vulnerable to engine and property thieves.
“The Police Marine Unit and Beach Management Unit used to patrol fishing areas at night and in the morning to ensure that the fishermen weren’t attacked. The marine officers were withdrawn and now the theft of boat engines is high. Sometimes, they also steal the fish from the boats,” Mr Banasula says.

Fishermen in a boat near Lyabaana Island in Buvuma District on Lake Victoria. Photos/Andrew Bagala


Operating far away from the lake shores means having a bigger boat, power engine, several nets, fuel and a big number of workers.

The fishermen estimate that a fully equipped boat that is able to survive in the rough weather common in the middle of the lake costs about Shs25m, which most of them can’t afford.
However, the scarcity of Nile Perch has seen a re-emergence of the Lake Victoria squeaker, a type of fish locally known as Nkolongo. Nkolongo had disappeared after the introduction of the Nile Perch. 
Mr Kasindi says Lake Victoria squeakers are very cheap and can only reach the market when smoked.
“That is what fishermen have resorted to as food and for cash. But honestly speaking, they can’t sustain our communities,” he says.

What fishermen say
Mr Salim Kasindi, the head of the fishermen at Lyabaana Island, too says that there is a shortage of fish in the area.
“This island alone used to catch 70 tonnes of Nile Perch a month.  We are now catching less than 25 tonnes. During the period of catching Sardines between January and June, we would harvest 80 tonnes a month. Right now, we can’t get enough for our own food consumption,” Mr Kasindi said.
Mr John Kikomero blames the declining fish stocks on the government, which he says has allowed trawling, a new type of fishing for sardines, which the locals dubbed ‘Hurry Up.’
Trawling is done by large scale fishermen because it requires many nets, lights, manpower and electric equipment.

From their trawler, the fishermen cast trawl nets, which are 10 millimetres, in a circle form covering about a mile and then use bright light at night to attract silver fish. They then haul the nets onto the trawler.
Mr Kikomeko says the nets catch fish indiscriminately, including immature Nile Perch and tilapia.
“They were supposed to catch only silver fish in shallow areas, but they abuse their permits and go into deep water areas where Nile Perch live,” he says.

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