How Lake Victoria fishers are edging themselves out of business

A trader arranges fresh tilapia at her stall in Jubilee Fish Market in Kisumu. PHOTO | TOM OTIENO
A trader arranges fresh tilapia at her stall in Jubilee Fish Market in Kisumu. PHOTO | TOM OTIENO 

When reports emerged recently that some fish firms in Kisumu were importing stocks from China for sale locally, the reactions were swift with some leaders from western Kenya even terming it economic sabotage given the town’s proximity to Lake Victoria — the world’s second largest fresh water lake by surface area, after Lake Superior in North America.

A review of the Lake Victoria fish industry, however, shows that the Chinese fish imports only confirmed a sector in crisis, battling a myriad environmental and economic challenges.

“Importation of fish is only a measure to close the market gap. It’s an indication of bigger problems which we are currently addressing,” regional assistant director for fisheries Robert Wanyama said.

Data by the Fisheries ministry showed that presently the country only produces 200,000 tonnes of fish against a projected demand of one million tonnes — a trend largely blamed on dwindling stock from Lake Victoria.

According to the Economic Survey 2016, the country’s total fish output declined by 14.3 per cent from 168,400 tonnes in 2014 to 144,300 tonnes in 2015.

Fish landed from fresh water sources dropped by 15 per cent from 159,300 tonnes in 2014 to 135,400 tonnes in 2015, mainly attributed to decline in fish catches from Lake Victoria and fish farming.

The decline in landings from Lake Victoria is partly explained by dwindling stocks of the Nile Perch species in the lake. Some 109,902 tonnes of fish were realised from Lake Victoria in 2015, down from 128,708 tonnes in 2014, the Economic Survey 2016 showed.

Mr Wanyama says bad fishing practices have led to destruction of breeding grounds over time, hence the few stocks being recorded from Lake Victoria.

“The reducing fish stocks in the lake is worrying. It’s because of the rampant use of illegal gear which capture both mature and immature fish including their eggs thereby destroying future generation,” he says.

Experts said beach seining, mono filament and use of undersized nets are the most common illegal methods of capturing fish.

“The use of illegal fishing gears is still rampant in the lake despite monitoring, control and surveillance efforts. Gears are increasingly modified to enhance their efficiencies,” the Lake Victoria (Kenya) Biennial Fisheries Frame Survey 2014 national report said.

A typical beach seine has weights attached to the leadline at the bottom of the net and buoys or floats attached to the floatline at the top of the net. The downward force of the weights counteracted by the buoyancy of the floats keeps the net open vertically when it is pulled through the water to entrap fish.

A beach seine is often set from shore to encircle a school of fish. Beach seines can also be set at some distance from and parallel to the shore, though still in shallow water, and then hauled onto a boat.

Beach seining in Lake Victoria employs an encirclement technique where small boats lay out the nets across a bay or suitable catchment area and the nets are then hauled up onto the beach.

The beach seine methods remains outlawed in Kenya since 2001 because the Fisheries Act, Section 50(1) prohibits fishing two kilometres towards the shores. Despite the ban, it remains the most used method followed by use of paddle boats and motorised boats and the parachute.

Following the ban, the number of beach seines operated on the Kenyan waters of Lake Victoria rapidly declined. Before the ban, about 5,800 beach seines operated in Kenyan waters of Lake Victoria, but the number declined to about 856 per cent in 2014, according to the Lake Victoria (Kenya) Biennial Fisheries Frame Survey 2014 national report.

The highest number of beach seines recorded in the 2014 frame survey by the Fisheries department were in Suba (212), Mbita (182) and Bondo (175) constituting 24.8 per cent, 21.3 per cent and 20,4 per cent respectively compared to figures recorded in 2012 in Mbita (226), Bondo (188), Suba (185) and Rarieda (147) which contributed 21.3, 17.7, 17.4 and 13.8 per cent respectively and accounting for 70 per cent of all the beach seines recorded in 2012.

In 2014, Bunyala recorded 111 (12.4 per cent) beach seines, Rarieda 73 (8.5 per cent), Rachuonyo North 55 (6.4 per cent), Nyakite 27 (3.2 per cent), Samia nine (1.1 per cent), Seme six (0.7 per cent), Homa Bay five (0.6 per cent) and Nyando which recorded only one (0.1 per cent) beach seine.

Kisumu Central, Kisumu East, Kisumu West, Nyakach and Rangwe sub-counties did not record any beach seine in 2014, according the survey.
Authorities have also blamed the drop in Lake Victoria fish stocks on the monofilament gill nets.

The fishing method involved use of invisible plastic nets that are cast into the water to catch fish. The law has set limits for sizes of gill nets used.

According to section 43 (4) of the Fisheries Act, it is illegal to use nets of less than 127 millimetres (hole size) when diagonally straight. It, however, sets a special size of not less than 10mm for omena (sardines) fishing. These are referred to as “mosquito net” type.

Some unscruplous fishermen, however, disregard the ban and use the nets in deep waters, destroying fingerlings and immature fish.

In 2014, the highest number of monofilament gill nets were found in Bondo (823) or 57.5 per cent, Mbita (166) contributing 11.6 per cent and Rarieda (164) contributing 11.5 per cent. Bunyala contributed (105) 7.3 per cent, Suba (68)4.7 per cent, Nyatike (68) 4.7 per cent, Samia (16) 1.1 per cent and Kisumu West (12) 0.8 per cent.

“The contribution of Kisumu Central (four) 0.3 per cent and Homa bay, Rangwe and Seme with (two) 0.1 per cent each were negligible while no monofilament gill nets were recorded in Kisumu East, Nyakach and Nyando sub-counties,” the Biennial Fisheries Frame Survey 2014 national report says.

The report recommended that beach management units should take the lead in prohibiting illegal fishing and fishing gears in their respective areas.

“There is an urgent need for a policy intervention to ensure the implementation of measures to manage the fishing capacity in Lake Victoria to match the available fishing opportunities while ensuring sustainable and profitable fisheries that shall continue to support the livelihoods and the economy of the Lake Victoria fishing sector,” it recommended.

In an attempt to beat the cheats, the Fisheries Department has been cracking down on those using illegal nets but its efforts have fallen short.

Water pollution

“In a single swoop, we recover an average of 30 nets. We have been forced to do this weekly and not monthly like before due to the seriousness of the matter. It’s, however, expensive. The heaviest expenditure comes with fuelling the boats. We also need security and allowances for our officers,” says Mr Wanyama.

Dr Ali Matano, an environment expert, says pollution is a main contributor to the extinction of some breeds of fish in the lake. He said cichlids, which is an endemic species, was once the most populous type, but are now faces extinction.

He said mating of cichlids is dependent on the colour. Females have more attractive colours for males to identify them. But due to water turbidity (reduced water transparency), the males have a problem identifying the females.

The more polluted the water, the less the transparency, he notes.

“In the last three to four decades, there used to be over 500 species in the lake but over time with the fisheries dynamics including introduction of the Nile perch, growing culture for fish eating has affected this. Increased pollution has is also a major factor,” said Dr Matano who is the executive secretary for the Lake Victoria Basin Commission.