By Ann Mikia

When the fisherman saw members of the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) approach in two fast moving speed boats, he jumped into the deep waters of Lake Victoria preferring to drown rather than face them.

The fisherman ignored the soldiers’ frantic signals asking him not to endanger his life by jumping into the waters. It didn’t matter that this writer and two of her colleagues were watching as this happened. Luckily, the soldiers managed to save the fisherman from drowning, administered first aid on him before officially arresting him and steering his canoe to the shore. It is not clear what happened to him after that.

Such is the fear for the UPDF soldiers by fishermen operating on Lake Victoria that they would rather drown than face the brutality of the soldiers.

Mr Silvester Ouro, a fisherman on the lake, recalls how he was once subjected to torture by the soldiers for no apparent reason.

“I was made to eat raw fish before getting 50 strokes of the cane for allegedly being found with illegal fishing gear on Ugandan waters,” the 47-year-old fisherman recalls.

Mr Chris Abachi,72,  says in the past fishing was not done for commercial purposes unlike today and therefore there were no such enforcement activities.

He says what is today considered as illegal fishing was practiced even in the past but it was considered legal. He is however concerned about the dwindling fish levels in the lake and calls upon fishermen to adhere to approved fishing gears.

Fisheries staff in Uganda measuring if the boat meets the required threshold

Mr. Samson Kidera who works with the ministry of fisheries and grew up in the shores of the lake remembers how fishermen then would fish in any of the three countries without restrictions. He says illegal fishing was unheard of.

Mr Caeser Asiyo from Victory Caged Fish Farm attributes the rise of illegal fishing to poor fishing practices, illegal nets, fishing in breeding grounds and lack of capacity to enforce the available laws against the vice.

A number of fishermen in the lake blamed corruption where they are forced to pay bribes to the officers patrolling the lake to prevent illegal fishing gears from being confiscated. They say that the impounded illegal fishing gear is secretly given to some other fishermen.

Both countries shift blame with Uganda blaming Kenya for production of the illegal fishing nets while the western regional coordinator says the illegal fishing gears find their way to Kenya from Uganda.

Mr Omondi Ndeke Jaber Kamin, the secretary of the Beach Management Unit in Bunyala Sub County says: “Just as the government did with the plastic bags menace, they should close down the factories producing the illegal fishing nets immediately so that the fishermen will not have access to them otherwise illegal fishing may not end.”

Despite the fisheries bosses denying that factories that make illegal fishing nets exist in the country, we managed to talk to officials of three companies namely Kavirondo wholesalers, Webuye wholesalers and Monasa wholesalers all based in Kisumu who confirmed they produce the fishing gears. In a secret interview, the managers of the wholesalers said they cannot close business as they also sell other commodities.

These managers alleged that some of the top government officials are in the business and therefore cannot be closed down.

The Regional Coordinator Fisheries and Blue Economy in western and Lake Victoria region in Kenya, Kidera attributes the rise in illegal fishing to factors such as use of fishing nets meant to catch small fish called ‘omena’ to catch bigger species such as Tilapia and the Nile Perch. He says that some fishermen evade landing fish at the gazetted landing sites to evade arrest. This way, details about the quantity of fish netted, its size and the fishermen involved are not recorded.

Lake Victoria/ Western Regional Coordinator, Samson Kidera leading the team during stocking of the fish cages

Some of the fishermen interviewed complained they had no cash to buy the required fishing nets which are expensive. They were pleading with the governments in both countries to give them loans to buy the fishing nets. Those in charge of the fishing sector blame the fishermen for lack of operational cooperatives societies where they can benefit from loans.

How Law Enforcement is Tackling Illegal Fishing in Both Countries  

The enforcement of the fishing law by the Ugandan army is a double edged sword. It has helped protect the Nile perch, the most valuable fish in Ugandan waters. On the other hand, the fishermen complain of the inhumane treatment in the hands of the law enforcers. The enforcement of the law happens in the two neighbouring countries of Kenya and Uganda.

When we visited one village in Port Victoria in Kenya, Ms Stella Simiyu narrated how her husband who is a fisherman was caught by the Ugandan fishermen in August 2021.

“When they got him in the lake fishing, they first beat him forcing him to jump in to the lake but they got him out and went with him. We were called by other fishermen who informed us that he was really beaten and taken to Uganda,” she recalls.

Lake Victoria is a fresh water body also called Victoria Nyanza, the largest lake in Africa. It’s the chief reservoir of the river Nile and is shared by the three east African countries namely Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya. Its area is 26,828 square miles (69,484 square km). The shoreline is shared by Kenya (6%), Uganda (43%), and Tanzania (51%).

Fish is a renewable resource and one of the national resources that can rejuvenate the economy of the east African countries. Fish therefore needs to be protected to grow and it was this realization that made Uganda come up with a raft of measures to save small fish to grow.

According to the fisheries inspector Mr Mugawi Innocent, Uganda has enforced the management of fisheries resources for the last ten years. In 2017, the Ugandan army was ordered by President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni to help the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Husbandry and Fisheries to curb illegal fishing aimed at increasing the fish biomass because the fish factories were almost closing down.

The measures aimed at curbing illegal fishing in Uganda require all boats at the landing sites to have number plates or security numbers for easy identification since the numbers are unique to the different landing sites. Boats without identification numbers are impounded.

Another measure requires impounding of boats found in fish breeding areas which operate like maternity area for the fish and the disturbance is believed to interfere with the ecosystem and it hinders multiplication of fish in the lake. Illegal fishing nets such as monofilament, undersize nets and hooks are prohibited and are impounded as exhibits in prosecuting illegal fishing cases.

While Uganda and Kenya have similar measurements of what’s legal and what’s illegal, enforcement of the law seems different.

Timothy Odede, is the director of fisheries in Busia County. He seems against the use of excessive use of force in enforcing the law. “The status of the fishermen is not the middleclass and if you arrest to the last man, the next to be born will still go to the lake. We therefore need to be more creative and sensitive in dealing with the fishing problem. The biggest headache is to reduce the fishermen and fishing gears in order to increase the biomass in the lake”.

Mr Odede says he prefers a different approach. “It’s more expensive to police the Lake than investing in the lives of the affected people. If you took a battalion of soldiers in the Lake in terms of their allowances, fuel and logistics, I think it would be more cost effective to invest in alternatives so that we will have management by alternative livelihoods than management by the gun so we will need to find a balance”. 

 The excessive use of force by the Ugandan army has instilled fear and injuries in fishermen they have apprehended. It hasn’t curbed illegal fishing either.

Dr Mark Olokotum, a Uganda-based Aquatic diversity scholar, confirms that the enforcement against illegal fishing in Lake Victoria was only effective in two years from 2017-2019 but old habits started creeping back. The use of land and water patrols, fines, punishment and arrests to enforce regulations can’t be effective unless corruption is addressed and measures to deal with it taken.

Some of the alternatives that the government in both countries are experimenting with include encouraging cage farming. This is when a netted enclosure is suspended in an aquatic environment such as sea or lake. The enclosure houses fish or other aquatic products.

Kenya has 6400 fish cages today producing an estimated 50,000 metric tons annually while capture fisheries produce about 150,000 making a total of 200,000 tons and a deficit of 550,000 tons annually.

Apart from caged farming, the director of fisheries in Busia County Timothy Odede says they started weaning fishermen from the lake by introducing them to other income generating activities “The County is supporting them to do poultry farming that is profitable or dairy that is profitable to give the community a viable income and reduce the fishing pressure”

If Illegal Fishing Continues, What is the Impact on the Biodiversity?

Joice Ikwaput Nyeko is the acting director of fisheries in Uganda. When that question was posed to her she said “Illegal fishing will definitely lead to stock decline since both the mothers and babies are being caught leaving low numbers to replenish the stocks. Picture a chicken in your compound that lays eggs and after hatching the eagle takes away the chicks. She will repeat the process and in the end you will have no chicken. Same situation applies to the fish in the lake. Illegal fishers catching immature fish are like the eagle.

This story was written with the support from Environmental Reporting Collective (ERC)