By Sharon Atieno

This story was produced in partnership with InfoNile, supported by the Pulitzer Center.

In December 2023, Asha Okoth Jaoko, a boat owner from Kiumba Beach, Rusinga Island, received the news that 18 pieces of his Nile perch nets were stolen. This news came barely a week after he lost some 30 pieces of net in a similar incident.

As is customary with Nile perch fishing, fishermen leave their traps in the water during the day and return for them the following morning. It is during the night that these incidents take place.

“For one to properly carry out Nile perch fishing, you need about 40 pieces of nets which form one big gill net,” a frustrated Jaoko says, adding that he had two fishing boats before the two theft incidents happened, which have sent him back to the drawing board.

“By the time the first 30 pieces were stolen when the trap was laid, I was using one boat as the other was undergoing repair. Thus, I knew I had this other one to act as a backup because it still had the 40 nets,” he said. “Now that the nets belonging to this one have also been stolen, I can’t go back to the lake unless I get some assistance.”

Asha Okoth Jaoko, a boat owner in Kiumba beach whose fishing nets have gotten lost in the lake
Photo credits: Sharon Atieno

One piece of gill net used in fishing Nile perch costs about KShs. 3,200 (USD 21), depending on the prevailing market prices. A fisherman requires about 40 pieces of such nets, resulting in a total cost of about KShs. 128,000 (USD 835).

Jaoko is not alone. This has been the plight of Nile perch fishermen in Kiumba beach and its neighboring areas such as Wayando, Lwanda Rombo and Ngodhe. 

The incidents have been blamed on silver cyprinid fishermen, who go fishing at night. Such conflicts among fisherfolk communities have become rampant as a result of the declining fish production of the lake driven by overfishing and illegal fishing practices, according to the Kenya Fisheries Service (KeFS).

The fisheries sector is one of the most important industries in Kenya, with more than 700,000 people dependent on fishing as a source of livelihood. Lake Victoria – shared by Tanzania and Uganda- is the most significant inland fishery in the country.

Of the total fish production in 2022, about 173,741 MT worth KShs.37.6 billion (USD 286 million), inland fisheries accounted for 67 percent of production, with the biggest share coming from Lake Victoria (86,394 megatonnes).

The lake is a multi-species fishery with many known species, but only Silver cyprinid (Omena), Lates niloticus (Nile perch) and Oreochromis niloticus (Nile tilapia) are of major economic significance. Despite this, there has been a declining trend in the total catch of these three species over the years.

Data from the Kenya Fisheries Service shows that fish production in all counties bordering Lake Victoria except Siaya County has declined compared to 2013 levels. Homa Bay County, which accounts for the biggest share of the lake, has not been spared. Between 2013 and 2022, the county’s production decreased from 80,150 to 50,053 metric tonnes. 

In Rusinga Island particularly, the conflict between Nile perch and silver cyprinid fishermen almost got out of hand were it not for timely intervention.

Peter Okong’o Magunda, the vice chairperson of Kiumba Beach Management Unit (BMU), says that after they have set their traps during the day, the silver cyprinid fishermen who fish at night come from other beaches, and instead of looking for fishing space where someone has not laid their trap, they set their traps at the same place the Nile perch fishermen have laid theirs.

“When they do that, they take the catch that they find in our nets and also destroy our nets in the process,” he laments, adding that when they return the following day at dawn, they only find losses.

Magunda says that though the lake does not have boundaries, BMU rules guide how fishermen operate. The rules clearly state that if someone has set up their trap, the other person needs to move a few meters from them for everyone’s benefit.

He notes that the Nile perch fishermen use non-motorized boats, which are dependent on wind, so it is difficult for them to move to other beaches. Additionally, if they move further from where they are, they sometimes get into trouble with Ugandan authorities who arrest the fishermen, detain the boats and confiscate the catch. They only release the boat and fishermen for a fine of around KShs. 30,000 (USD 196).

According to Wasunga Okeyo, assistant chairman patrol of the Kiumba BMU, the silver cyprinid fishermen with whom they keep quarreling come from near and far beaches, including Litare, Koguna, Kisui Nyachebe, Sindo, Wadiang’a, Misori and Gwasi.

He notes that despite the limited fishing ground, one can find at least 15 silver cyprinid fishing boats belonging to one person in one area. In a space occupied by one Nile perch fisherman, there can be up to 40 silver cyprinid fishermen in the same place.

Additionally, the kind of nets used to fish the silver cyprinid pose a significant challenge to the Nile perch fishermen, because the sizes of the holes in the nets allow fishing of immature Nile perch, leading to a shortage of the species in the lake.

Wasungu Okeyo, Assistant Chairman patrol, Kiumba beach BMU displaying net used for fishing dagaa
Photo credits: Sharon Atieno

Unlike the nets used by silver cyprinid fishermen, Okeyo notes: “The gill nets (for Nile perch fishing) have very big mesh sizes from four up to eight inches, which allow even the silver cyprinid to pass through.”

Silver cyprinid fishermen

carpets of silver cyprinid (dagaa) and Lake Victoria haplochromine cichlid (fulu) being sun-dried in Litare beach
Photo credits: Sharon Atieno

In Litare beach, some 10km from Kiumba, one can tell that the silver cyprinid business is thriving as carpets upon carpets of this fish are laid for sun-drying along the beach.

In a month, the beach produces an average of 10 tonnes of silver cyprinid, making it among the largest producers of this fish in Homa Bay County, Peter Odhiambo, assistant secretary, Litare BMU, says.

He notes that silver cyprinid fishermen keep moving according to the availability of the fish, adding that they are not as static as their Nile perch counterparts.

“There are times when omena is found in areas operated by the gill net fishermen. Thus, when they also go fishing in such places, the anchor of the omena net gets stuck on the Nile perch net, and as it is pulled up, it comes up with the fish, which they at times take,” he admits.

“Secondly, the anchor can get stuck and as they pull it up, end up damaging the gill nets which were laid. This is what brings the conflict.”

engine boats lined up along Litare beach waiting for silver cyprinid (dagaa) fishing expedition at night
photo credits: Sharon Atieno

Odhiambo observes that though there are procedures for solving conflicts between the BMUs and the fishermen, Kiumba BMU responded to the invasion by the silver cyprinid fishermen by carrying out patrols during the night to catch any offending parties, destroying their nets and stealing their catch. However, according to him, they were not typically following the proper procedure of reporting the offenders to relevant authorities for action.

He says the patrol team would detain the boat and the fishermen and, in the process, destroy even their equipment. For the boat owners to get their boat and workers back, they would be charged exorbitant prices.

engine used in the fishing of silver cyprinid along Litare beach
Photo credits: Sharon Atieno

Maureen Akinyi Odila, a boat owner in Litare Beach, says she has incurred heavy losses from the conflict. She had on more than one occasion received several calls from her workers that either the lights used in silver cyprinid fishing were destroyed or that her workers were arrested and the boat detained by people from Kiumba beach.

Odila notes that payments are demanded of as much as KShs. 8,000 (USD 60) to release the boat and workers. “Besides, sometimes you find that some of the equipment has also been destroyed or stolen, meaning you still have to incur costs of replacing and fixing these equipment,” she says, adding that the repairs can cost as much as KShs. 20,000 (about USD 131).

Odhiambo says cases of detention became so rampant that even the silver cyprinid fishermen and boat owners were planning a way of regrouping to retaliate. Without timely intervention, things could have turned from bad to worse.

Increase in fish-related conflicts

According to data downloaded from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, which tracks data on conflicts around the world, fish-related conflicts have generally increased in Kenya from 2010 to 2023, reaching a high of nine conflicts recorded in 2023 compared to an average of three per year from 2010-2015. Fifty total conflicts were recorded in the 14-year period, 23 of these targeting civilians. 

At least 19 conflicts were tracked on the shorelines or islands of the Kenyan part of Lake Victoria, most relating to cross-border tussles between Ugandan and Kenyan fishermen and the disputed Migingo Island. Two conflicts were recorded in 2023 between groups of Kenyan fishers over shared fishing grounds and dwindling fish stock. 

According to Michael Ogembo Akoko, the sub-county fisheries officer in charge of Suba North and Suba Central, lack of employment has led to overdependence on the lake, leading to increased fishing effort, yet the fishing ground is limited. Competition for the limited fish is leading to different kinds of conflicts among fishermen.

In charge of 61 beaches in the two sub-counties including Litare and Kiumba, Akoko notes that in Remba and parts of Mfangano islands, the silver cyprinid fishermen steal fish from the gill nets at night, while in Kibuogi, Sindo, and Remba beaches, silver cyprinid fishermen under the disguise of fishing steal the gill nets and sell them at throwaway prices of about KShs.500 (about USD 3).

Wasungu Okeyo, Assistant Chairman patrol, Kiumba BMU displaying nets used for Nile perch fishing
Photo credits: Sharon Atieno

There is also a conflict between the long line and gill net fishermen between the Suba North and Suba Central border. Also, on some beaches, the black market fuels tensions between fish traders and boat owners.

The black market involves some illegal fish traders- not registered to any BMUs- colluding with fishermen to buy fish directly before taking the stock to designated fish landing sites as required by BMU by-laws. Some of these fish have been stolen from other nets.  

Also, when some of these fishermen come from their fishing expedition because they’ve already made money illegally, they return claiming there was no or low catch.

Akoko reiterates that the main reason behind the constant conflicts among the fisherfolk is the dwindling supply. “The beaches are not producing as much fish as they were before. Hence, everyone is trying to get something little, even if it means resorting to illegal means,” he says.

Some of the illegal fishing practices mentioned in a 2021 report by the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI) include the use of gillnets below five inches (<5″); undersized longline hooks of number 10 or smaller, the deployment of all sizes of monofilament gears, the use of beach seine nets, and the use of harmful weeds, dynamite and cast nets.

Overfishing and the use of these illegalities results in the destruction and fishing of immature fish and mothers who would potentially lay the eggs, says Dr. Christopher Aura, KMFRI’s Director of Freshwater Systems Research.

Similarly, the KeFS notes that overfishing has been an ongoing issue in the lake for years with population growth and economic factors resulting in increased fishing activity, putting immense pressure on fish stocks.

According to a report by the East African Community (EAC) Lake Victoria Fisheries Organization Secretariat, between 2000 and 2016, the number of fishers operating on Lake Victoria increased from 129,305 to 219,919. Of these, 50% were in Tanzania, 30% in Uganda and 20% in Kenya. 

During the same period, fishing crafts operating on the Lake increased from 42,519 to 74,257 with 42% in Tanzania, 39% in Uganda and 19% in Kenya.

Nile perch fishing boats parked at Kiumba beach waiting for the next fishing expedition
Photo credits: Sharon Atieno

Another reason for the declining fish stock, Dr. Aura says, is the increased nutrient enrichment due to upstream activities, including farming and industries. This has affected the water quality, and fish struggle to survive.

Besides, he notes that climate change has led to the shrinking of breeding grounds. “Fish are struggling to reproduce due to low oxygen levels and increasing temperature induced by climate change,” he says.

Fish being weighed at Kaswanga beach
Photo credits: Sharon Atieno

Solving the conflict

To prevent conflicts between the silver cyprinid and Nile perch fishermen from escalating in the affected beaches in Rusinga Island, BMUs convened several multi-stakeholder meetings in the last quarter of 2023 involving people from the fisheries sector, which led to the decision to come up with a “zoning” method.

The zoning method involves the rotation of fishing grounds after 15 days. Each group is allowed to fish at a particular part of the beach during this period, and then they exchange when the time lapses.

“During the first three days, that is, 16th, 17th and 18th, we must patrol the waters to ensure smooth fishermen transition. Some were resistant, but with time, the fishermen have gotten used to the method,” Rimba, who is in charge of 18 BMUs across Rusinga, says.

A fisherman holding Nile perch after a fishing expedition
Photo credits: Sharon Atieno

The BMUs spearheaded this decision as one of their mandates under the Fisheries (Beach Management Unit) Regulations, 2007 to prevent or reduce conflicts in the fisheries sector.

According to Nick Rimba, Chairperson Kaswanga BMU and Rusinga BMU Network, the method is being implemented 200 meters inwards from the beaches where there was rivalry between the two fisherfolk groups. These include Litare, Kaswanga, Kiumba, Wayando, and Lwanda Rombo beaches.

Rimba, tasked with the burden of ensuring that the method is working smoothly, leads daily patrols alongside representatives of the five beaches to ensure that the fishermen coexist peacefully during their fishing activities.

Since the exercise began in November 2023, he says, the conflicts have reduced by up to 80 percent, while theft cases have reduced to about 30 percent. However, he observes that carrying out patrols almost nightly is very expensive as the boat uses fuel and costs very high. Additionally, since patrol work is voluntary, some members representing the BMUs sometimes fail to show up.

Nick Rimba, Chairman BMUs, Rusinga ward
Photo credit: Sharon Atieno

The fisherfolk, especially from Litare and Kiumba beaches, which have been experiencing constant disagreements, agree that some peace and calm have been restored since the method was implemented. However, they are looking for a long-term solution to the dwindling fish population so that everybody can benefit equally from the lake.

Dr. Aura notes that the government is working on a framework to come up with possible solutions to the declining fish population in Lake Victoria. Already, restocking of Nile tilapia in small water bodies, mainly dams across western and central regions of the country, is underway to increase food security and nutrition while promoting aquaculture.