Pollution choking aquatic life, pushing fishers out of business

Sunday March 17 2024

Nile perch fish being delivered at weighing place in Jinja landing bay, Uganda in this photo taken on October 22, 2019. PHOTO | NMG


In the past, I used to catch at least one Nile Perch weighing at least 80 kilogrammes every month, but nowadays it takes years to find one of that size,” said Roger Kibalama, a fisherman at Lotoboka landing site in the Ssese Islands, an archipelago of 84 islands located in Lake Victoria.

The Nile Perch, which was introduced to Lake Victoria in the 1950s and has for years been a sure-fire winner for the lake’s fisherfolk, is a large predatory fish that feeds on other fish species and can grow up to two metres long and weigh up to 200kg.

Lake Victoria is the world’s largest tropical freshwater lake, spanning Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania and supports the livelihoods of at least 40 million people. The lake is also one of the most important inland fisheries in the world, with an estimated annual catch of one million tonnes.

But changes in the ecosystem as consequences of climate change, pollution, population growth, and unsustainable fishing practices are threatening the future of fishing in Africa’s largest lake.

Read: ‘Incognito’ fishing vessels deny Africa $11bn in annual revenues

“Species like jewelfish will soon go extinct because the Nile Perch feeds on them while increasing pollution of the lake is affecting oxygen levels causing many fish to die,” said Martin Sentongo, a fisheries expert working at Uganda’s Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Husbandry and Fisheries.


The fishermen at the Gabba landing site in Kampala echoed Mr Sentongo’s views, saying they find a lot of dead tilapia among their catch whenever they go out fishing.

“It’s hard to go out fishing and not find at least one dead fish trapped in a polythene bag alongside your catch but sometimes more than 10 in one day,” said Ronald Emogu, a fisherman.

Over the years, people living near the shores of Lake Victoria have dumped tonnes of single-use items such as polythene bags, plastic bottles, and sachets into the lake. Factories also discharge untreated wastewater and chemicals that contain toxic substances such as lead, arsenic, and aluminum, which harm aquatic life.

In the Ssese Islands, Mr Kibalama cited fertilisers and pesticides used in Bidco’s oil palm plantations the biggest threat. When it rains, these are washed down into the lake, encourage excessive growth of aquatic plants and algae that compete for, and deplete the oxygen that fish need to survive.

Read: Africa losing $37m in low fish access fee

According to Seremosi Kamuturaki, the executive director of Uganda Fisheries and Fish Conservation Association, however, even though climate change and pollution have affected the breeding cycles of Lake Victoria’s fish, overcapacity fishing, whereby the fishing fleets catch more fish than the sustainable level of the fishery, is the biggest culprit.

The problem has been exacerbated by fishermen with large boats who have for years been catching Nile Perch of about two-three kilogrammes – and in large quantities – that’s not yet reached maturity to reproduce. Such fish are usually about a year old, and considering female Nile perch start reproducing when they are about four years old.

“The other problem is that fishermen who catch sardines also end up catching juvenile Nile Perch and tilapia because they use seine nets, which sieve only water. No living creature can go through them,” said Mr Kamuturaki, who is also a fisheries expert.

In 2017, Uganda and Tanzania ramped up enforcement on Lake Victoria, prohibiting fishing gear with tiny meshes. In Uganda, the military-led Fisheries Protection Unit (FPU) was established to curtail bad fishing practices, but was only effective in its first two years of operation, the fishermen in Ssese claim.

Tanzania established the Multi-sector Task Force (MTF), to curb illegal fishing through an operation dubbed “Operation Sangara”, while in Kenya enforcement of fishing regulations remained under Beach Management Units (BMUs), which have not been as effective as Uganda’s FPU or Tanzania’s MTF.

Even though Uganda’s FPU has been maintained to date, fish populations in the lake continue to decline.

In January, Tanzania President Samia Suluhu directed the Ministry of Livestock and Fisheries to offer professional advice to fishermen to comply with the regulations to ensure fishing remains sustainable.

Read: S.Africa enacts fishing ban to protect endangered penguins

“The fishing industry has been in decline because of bad fishing practices, and the intervention of the army has not helped either because some members of the army later on became fishermen themselves and continued the bad fishing practices,” said John Ekudel, the chief finance officer of Kalangala district, which makes up the Ssese Islands.

In 2018, Uganda exported 24,545 metric tonnes of fish and fish products – the highest in 10 years – and the country earned $171 million, according to Bank of Uganda statistics. Fish export earnings grew steadily to $195.8 million in 2021.

But that trend doesn’t correspond with the current fish stocks in Lake Victoria, Mr Kamuturaki says.

“It’s the value of fish and fish products that has gone up, not the numbers of fish in the lake. Fish stocks are declining. You realise that about 15-20 years ago, we boasted 20 fish factories in Uganda but most of them have since closed shop and only five remain. That means we no longer have enough fish,” he said.

Uganda mainly exports the Nile Perch, which is in high demand in the European Union, Australia, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia because of its prized maw. A 2021 study by the Economic Policy Research Centre indicated that one kilogramme of Nile Perch maw fetches up to $1,000, and on average varying sizes fetch between $70-90.

Mr Kamuturaki’s observation is supported by Uganda Revenue Authority’s data showing a progressive decline in maw exports over the past three years – dropping from 701,607 kg in the financial year 2019/2020 to 305,964 kg in 2022/2023.

What needs to be done?

Mr Kamuturaki proposes that the government work closely with the fishermen because they are the main cause of trouble. Apart from bad fishing practices, they are also the main polluters of the lake because they use plastic bottles to hold their nets.

“If you want to catch a thief, you use a thief. The mistake those managing the lake make is that of giving out licenses that don’t spell out what the fishermen’s responsibilities are as far as sustainable fishing is concerned,” he said.

Mr Kamuturaki said fishermen need to be organised in associations and be mandated to manage the lake themselves but with strict checks and balances.

“For a long time, we have been using strategies that do not work, such as the (defunct) Beach Management Unit that was more of a political organisation since committee chairpersons used to campaign to be elected. These were mostly opportunists with individual interests.

“But if management were left to the fishing community, they will protect the lake because they will begin to see it as their own and protect it. Also, no one understands the lake and fishing better than fishermen because this is their daily existence,” he said.