Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda, the three countries that share Lake Victoria, have frustrated a regional initiative to save Nile perch in the world’s second largest freshwater body.
The EAC Council of Ministers in 2009 launched a $1.8 million drive dubbed Operation Save the Nile Perch (OSNP) to recover the species’ population, which has been depleted from 1.2 million tonnes in the early 2000s to a mere 3,000 tonnes today.
The Nile perch, or Lates niloticus, as it is known scientifically, is a large freshwater fish introduced into Lake Victoria in 1954 by the British colonial governments to increase the fish population. Under the OSNP, the three states committed to contribute $600,000 each annually for the operation targeting illegal fishing.
But, five years down the line, the EAC Council of Ministers’ report indicates that Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania have been dragging their feet over payment of their annual fees, rendering the mission a non-starter.
“In November 2013, the Council reiterated its directive to Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda to fulfil their pledges towards the OSNP programme. However, no funding has been received,” reads the report of the just ended Council of Minister’s meeting.
Kenya remitted $570,907, equivalent to 95 per cent in the year 2010/11. Uganda paid $440,160 whereas Tanzania remitted just $185,013. A Tanzanian official attributed the failure to honour the pledge to a budget deficit.
The trade in undersized fish has continued unabated since there is little law enforcement to control illegal fishing on the lake.
The August 2010 framework survey conducted by Lake Victoria Fisheries Organisation (LVFO) around Lake Victoria’s beaches and funded by the Lake Victoria Environmental Management Programme (LVEMP II) revealed that fish-breeding grounds have been extensively destroyed.
This has negatively affected fish species with the Nile perch being the hardest hit. Use of illegal fishing gear like gillnets, monofilaments and beach seines is on the rise.
During the 1980s and early 1990s, before the introduction of fish processing plants in lake zone regions, Nile perch was virtually valueless and favoured mainly by families that could not afford more expensive fish like tilapia.
But between 1992 and 2004, the status of the Nile perch rose dramatically due to demand from European countries, thanks to findings by scientists that the fish has Omega-3 fatty acids that help to check heart problems and high blood pressure.
Today, nearly 22 years later, the situation is alarming following a sharp decline in Nile perch stocks in Lake Victoria caused by, among other factors, overfishing.
As the demand for Nile perch soared in Europe, so did the number of boats and fishing nets on the lake. From beach seines to small-size fishing nets that catch immature fish, nobody cared — it was survival of the fittest.
Nestory Kulinda, 61, a fisherman from Kagera region, says the problem started in 1995 — two years after the first fish-processing factory was opened in Mwanza — followed by more plants in Kagera and Mara regions.
“The fish processors started to buy Nile perch in bulk at very attractive prices. Fish agents built huge boats that could carry up to 20 tonnes of Nile perch. There were hundreds of these kinds of boats, which collected fish from small-scale fishermen.”
He said that at the time, fishing of immature Nile perch was minimal because there were plenty of mature fish weighing between three and 200 kilogrammes.
Fish that can be caught using legal nets are those measuring between 50cm and 85cm long while those measuring above 85cm are not harvested because they are considered parent stock. Fish weighing under a kilogramme is considered immature.
The Nile perch is of great commercial significance: Inland fisheries contribute between 2 and 12 per cent of the GDP in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.
The value of the catch from Lake Victoria is around $350 million at landing sites, with a further $250 million generated as foreign exchange by the export of Nile perch, LVFO data indicates.
Fishing on the lake supports the livelihoods of over 30 million people in directly dependent households by providing employment and income. The fish also provides protein for consumers in the region.