The value of fish imported from China increased by 11.8 percent to a historic high of Sh1.7 billion last year, raising more disquiet from local traders who complain of being edged of the market by the cheaper supplies.
Fresh data compiled by the State Department of Fisheries indicates that Kenya shipped in 22,362 tonnes of fish mainly from China, up from 19,127 tonnes worth Sh1.5 billion that was imported in 2017.
Industry numbers show the value of fish imports have been rising steadily in the past four years as the Chinese take advantage of their cheaper supplies to gain a foothold in the Kenyan market. The matter of Chinese fish flooding local markets even caused diplomatic unease between Nairobi and Beijing last year when President Uhuru Kenyatta said Kenyan government officials should find ways of curtailing the imports.
"I have been told about the imported fish from China. It is not possible that we import fish when our local traders are here," said Mr Kenyatta at the Strathmore University during the 2018 SMEs conference.
In an interview with Business Daily, Mr Paul Oimba, the chairperson of Gikomba Fish Traders said the imports have affected local business because they cannot compete favourably with the cheaper Chinese imports.
“Whereas a 10-kilo carton from China will cost Sh1,800, we sell the same quantity at Sh3,500, making it hard for us to compete,” said Mr Oimba.
He said that President Kenyatta’s directive limiting fish imports should be effected.
Lamu County Beach Management Units (BMUs) Chairman Mohamed Somo yesterday said lack of markets for their fish has left many stores and coolers full of rotting tuna, forcing the fishermen to discard them daily. The situation has subsequently led to a drop in the prices of tuna, leaving many fishermen reeling in losses.
A kilo of tuna normally sells for Sh300 but that has now gone down to Sh100.
State officials have insisted that imports are necessary to meet Kenyans’ rising demand for the delicacy.
Mr Micheni Ntiba, the Principal Secretary for Fisheries, said fish from China cannot be blocked now but will naturally reduce once aquaculture production goes up.
The country has an annual deficit of 365,000 tonnes of fish against a demand of 500,000 tonnes, which can only be filled through imports.
“We do not have an alternative over fish importation. It is a fact that we currently do not have enough fish in the country and we are required to import in order to meet the growing demand,” said Prof Ntiba in an interview yesterday.
There have been health concerns over the Chinese imports, with a joint research between The East African newspaper and the University of Nairobi (UoN) last year showing traces of toxic metal in the fish.
Samples of fish purchased from a wholesale dealer at Gikomba market, the largest open air fish market in Kenya, were tested by the UoN’s laboratory for residue and drug analysis last year. The tests revealed that the commodity had traces of lead, mercury, copper and arsenic, though in levels termed permissible by the World Health Organisation standards. However, experts warn that continuous consumption of food products that contain mercury, lead and copper could be harmful to the body.
“Long-term exposure to these metals for the human body, through frequent consumption of such food, can have a disastrous effect, and therefore their presence and long-term effects in the human body poses serious health risks,” said Prof James Mbaria, the head of the Department of the University of Nairobi’s Public Health, Pharmacology and Toxicology.
The Kenya Bureau of Standards, which is charged with the responsibility of checking the quality of imports, had not responded to our queries on the safety of Chinese fish imports by the time of going to press.
Since 2008, the highest production to be recorded in the country from both marine and aquaculture was 182,000 tonnes, recorded in 2014.
According to the department of fisheries, the catch from Lake Victoria has been dwindling over the years as a result of water hyacinth and restrictions on fishing area by Uganda and Tanzania, which share the lake with Kenya. Kenya also exports some fish, mainly Nile Perch, which is not popular locally.
The country has been promoting aquaculture through the Economic Stimulus Programme that started during President Mwai Kibaki’s administration. This is expected to reduce the deficit between supply and deman. Aquaculture provides up to 24 per cent of the country’s total fish production, with the balance coming from lakes and oceans.
“We are investing Sh14 billion with the aid of International Fund for Agricultural Development and we hope this will improve our production and cut imports significantly,” said Prof Ntiba.
The country is yet to attain the full potential in fishing in the Indian Ocean. Under the Exclusive Economic Zones, local fishermen are allowed to fish up to 200 nautical miles from the Kenyan shores, but they are operating at below five nautical miles for lack of appropriate fishing gear to explore the deep sea waters.
This has given room to developed nations with advanced gears to explore Kenya’s fishing potential. Illegal fishermen are also using the opportunity to exploit Kenya’s resources. In response, President Kenyatta launched the Coast Guard Service last year to protect the Kenyan coast against illegal fishermen.
Additional reporting by Kalume Kazungu