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How Kenya coast guards are confronting illegal fishing on Lake Naivasha


Fishermen on Lake Naivasha on September 29, 2021. PHOTO | FRANCIS MUREITHI | NMG

As darkness creeps in, the shores of Lake Naivasha at Kamere beach become aglow with blinding lights. For the fishermen, who have lived around this bubbling beach about 25km South of Naivasha, all their lives, these dazzling lights signal not celebration but despair.

Daniel Onyango says these unwelcome fishermen cast one of the pervasive problems of illegal commercial fishing on this beach and three others, namely Karagita, Central, and Tarabete on the shores of the 139-square kilometre lake.

Mr Onyango is one of the 200 licensed fishermen, who have seen their catches shrink due to ravages of illegal boats, which can remove tonnes upon tonnes of fish in a single night from these highly productive areas.

“When they [illegal boats] congregate [at night], they appear like a glowing island village,” he tells the Business Daily. “And, for us, it means we’ll have fewer and fewer fish to catch in the days ahead because they use fine-meshed nets that catch even the fishlings, which prevents fish from maturing and breeding.”

Besides illegal fishing, licensed fishermen have survived many deadly attacks by illegal fishermen. Some of them have been left with lifetime scars while others have lost stocks worth thousands of shillings following gun attacks by the armed illegal fishermen.

Survived death

Robert Bwire, 26, who operates from Tarabete beach, says he is lucky to be alive after illegal fishermen attacked him and stole his nets and fish stock worth thousands of shillings while his colleagues survived death by a whisker.

“We were attacked by a gang of illegal fishermen who were armed with arrows, machete, and other crude weapons. All our fishing gear and the stock were stolen. I still don’t know up to this day how we managed to navigate our boat to the shores and escaped,” he recalls.

The attacks are not limited to fishermen alone. Traders also have narrowly escaped death as the illegal fishermen waylay them as they transport their catch to the Nairobi market.

Michael Nduba Ngugi, coordinator at Lake Naivasha Boat Management Unit is yet to recover from the shock and injuries he suffered after he was attacked and blindfolded by gun-toting illegal fishermen and dumped at a forest in Mai Mahiu, 40km from Lake Naivasha.

“I was dumped at night in a forest and left for the dead. It was a terrible experience. The biting cold at night and the risk of being attacked by wild animals is one of the nightmares I will never forget. I lost my entire stock and suffered body injuries but I thank God I’m alive,” he said.

These are some of the chilling ordeals that hundreds of licensed fishermen and traders in the four beaches of this freshwater lake, which is a source of livelihoods to more than 10,000, undergo as they try to eke out an honest living from their sweat.

However, their daily misery is slowly subsiding and turning into a state of hope after the government deployed Kenya Coast Guards who have firmly dealt with the illegal fishermen as they have intensified patrols on the shores of Lake Naivasha and brought joy back to fishermen and traders.

Before the government deployed the Kenya Coast Guards to Lake Naivasha, illegal fishing spiked as most unlicensed fishermen invaded the fisheries, threatening the survival of the fish in the lake.

Recent records show the size of the two species-tilapia and common cap is increasing, implying that they are caught after they mature and can reproduce.

This is attributed to intensified Kenya Coast Guards patrol, which many licensed fishermen and traders want to be maintained.

“Illegal fishermen go fishing in areas that are critical breeding habitats that will destroy spawning ground of young fishes,” says Grace Nyambura Kimani, treasurer Karagita beach and secretary to Lake Naivasha Network, an umbrella body of licensed fishermen, crews, and traders operating on all the four beaches in the lake.

“Destructive fishing practices were potentially increasing before Kenya Coast Guard came and started patrolling all the four beaches. It was a big concern to traders, crew, and boat owners,” she said.

An official at the Kenya Coast Guards said: “The Kenya Coast Guards are dealing firmly with illegal fishermen. Our monitoring boat is staying ready in sites that are prone to illegal fishing.”

The licensed fishermen have criticised the Fisheries Department for allowing illegal fishing to operate a situation that has been aggravated by the closure of some flower farms around the lake, which has seen hundreds of workers lose their jobs and venture into unlicensed fishing activities.


Fishermen on Lake Naivasha on September 29, 2021. PHOTO | FRANCIS MUREITHI | NMG

The traders have called on the government to beef up efforts to guard the lake against illegal and destructive practices amid the mounting population pressure.

Rising population

It is estimated that out of a nearly one million population of Naivasha sub-county, about 300,000 underprivileged communities operate around the shores of Lake Naivasha to earn a living.

“We need at least two more boats to patrol with this kind of rising population. That depends on the lake and interference by reckless political leaders who want Kenya Coast Guards to go to fulfill their vested personal interest at the expense of the lake,” said Ms Kimani.

“I appreciate the coast guards who have brought sanity in the lake. Its shows the government’s commitment. It must prioritise the social safety net for the 10,000 households that depend on fishing for livelihood. The government must allocate special funds for fishing households whose incomes have dropped due to the Covid-19 outbreak.”

John Baraza, 29, says he has to go out as early as 3 am to return home with a catch just enough to survive a day. Among the species, he chances upon is tilapia and common cap. On average he usually gets two kilogrammes, which he sells for Sh500. “Sometimes you go home with nothing,” says Mr Baraza.

“This wasn’t the case before the illegal fishermen invaded the lake when at any time of the day I could catch up to 10kg of tilapia by going farther than 5km offshore for an hour. The depletion of the fish effectively is like a death sentence to me. Fishing is my only source of livelihood here. Without fish, I’ll sell nothing. Without fish, I’ll go hungry,” says Mr Baraza who has been fishing in the lake since 2012.

“I’m happy most of the crews are catching more fish, particularly tilapia. Tilapia is more valuable than a common cap. This means good money into our pockets.”

Panga-wielding goons

He has also been a victim of illegal fishermen who attacked him and his two colleagues at the Karagita beach three months ago.

“I had two crates of fish. As I was leaving the beach, three panga-wielding goons hit our engine. My colleague was hurt badly. We reported the matter to the Fisheries Department but no action was taken. The suspects are still roaming the beaches.”

“I think illegal fishing is the Achilles’ heel in the beaches on the shoreline of Lake Naivasha. If there is no Kenya Coast Guards, anything that we put as an investment is just a waste of money,” said Esther Wairimu Njuguna, a trader at Tarabete beach.

Lake Naivasha was designated as a RAMSAR — a wetland designated to be of international importance under the Ramsar Convention — site in 1995.

The local property owners under the Lake Naivasha Riparian Association formed in 1934 manage the lake. Commercial fishery produces 75 metric tonnes valued at Sh2.5 million annually.

Silas Wanjala, manager at Lake Naivasha Riparian Association, says the encroachment of riparian land around Lake Naivasha, which is home to a variety of wildlife including more than 400 bird species and a huge population of the hippopotamus, is a cause for concern as it has led to increased human-wildlife conflict.

“Nearly every month a fisherman is killed by a hippo. Most people killed by hippos are found around 100 metres around the breeding area. Until we address illegal fishing and conserve the biodiversity, we shall have no lake in future,” said Mr Wanjala.

Huge impact

Edna Waithaka, station coordinator at Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute in Naivasha, says the impact of illegal fishing is huge.

“The gear used is unacceptable. The distraction of breeding areas and destruction of vegetation and riparian areas because if illegal fishing is worrying,” she says.

Beatrice Obegi, a research scientist at Kenya Fisheries and Research Institute, said pesticide and pollution analysis as well as the restocking of fish in the lake are a challenge. The last restocking, she says, was in 2010.

“Random check of pesticides is expensive. We depend on donors for machines,” she said.

Captain Elijah Agaka of the Maritime Kenya Authority (KMA), who is in charge of the Rift Valley region, said the State agency is enforcing safety measures to all stakeholders.

“The KMA wants to ensure the safety of fishermen. We plan to engage boat operators on all four beaches to ensure they have safety gear,” he says.

Enforcing security across the 139-square kilometre lake, however, remains a herculean task for the Kenya Coast Guard and the county government due to limited resources and personnel at the Fisheries Department.

The Nakuru County’s failure to regulate and monitor illegal fishermen is seen to be a major contributor to the lake’s deteriorating fish catch. Unregistered boats in all four beaches are a major concern to licensed fishermen.

New strategy

County Agriculture executive Immaculate Njuthe Maina says the devolved unit is reviewing a task force report.

The county official says the Beach Management Units (BMU) will be responsible for creating and implementing management and enforcement plans under a new strategy to improve the governance of each beach at the lake and curb illegal fishing.

“We need support in monitoring our lake. The Kenya Coast Guard is a big help as they are capable of seizing illegal fishermen's boats and arrest them so they are held accountable by the law,” said Dr Maina.

As fish stocks improve, fishermen and traders are pinning their hopes on surveillance by Kenya Coast Guards as the devolved unit plans to overhaul its fisheries policy to address illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing through a new fisheries management plan framework.

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