The state of Lake Victoria fisheries part 2: is there a solution?

Continuation of last blog on Lake Victoria 

The warning signs are there

Nile perch biological indicators suggest that the fish is in a critical survival state. (Biological indicators are responses in physiology and/or behavior of species when stressed). The average size of Nile perch has decreased from 51.7 cm total length to 26.6 cm total length, according to hydro acoustic surveys (acoustic soundings are used to count and measure fish, these techniques do have limitations with respect to depth and size of fish measurable) suggesting that a significant portion of total Nile perch biomass is less than 50 cm TL (legal size for export). It was reported by the LVFO stock assessment team that in 2006 and 2008, less than 2% of the Nile perch biomass was in fact greater than 50 cm TL (this ultimately implies that 98% of the Nile perch in Lake Victoria too small to export, i.e. it is illegal to export). “Nile perch are considered legal for export if they measure above 50 cm total body length. The export of large Nile perch to Europe sparked the fishing craze, and economic investment within the region. Today it is hard to find a fish over 50 cm”.

Why are the Nile perch declining so fast?

“Visiting local fish markets in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, I was astounded to see vast quantities (tons) of Nile perch no bigger that 15 – 20 cm in size for sale. What is driving this demand for small fish?”

The size at first maturity of male and female Nile perch is also decreasing, this common amongst fish populations that are stressed (or overexploited). With the closure of 10 fish processing factories over the past two to three years, accounting for on average 2000 direct job losses (approximately 200 employees per factory, and not including dependants), and that factories are functioning at minimum operating costs (pers. Comm. with factories in all riparian states), fishers are turning to the lucrative trade in illegal fish (Nile perch < 50 cm TL) on domestic and regional markets to generate income for their households.

“It is estimated that there is over 1 million kilometers of fishing net used in Lake Victoria – the proportion of which are illegal, possibly the majority.”

Despite the warning signs that Nile perch are, the average number of fishermen increased by 33% between 2000 and 2008 (it is estimated that presently over 200 000 people actively partake in fishing activities like wide). During the same period, Frame survey (a census counting illegal gears, number of fishermen, number of vessels etc.) and MCS compliance missions noted a marked increase in the number of illegal gears being deployed to target undersize Nile perch. The number of vessels increased by 37% and the use of outboard engines increased by approximately 50%. It has been reported that motorized boats are more efficient, catching about 25 kg of fish per day, compared to 10 kg caught by non-motorized vessels.

The increase in use of illegal gears, motorized vessels and fishermen suggests that fishing for Nile perch is still profitable. Previously driven by lucrative export prices for Nile perch, fishers now target undersize illegal Nile perch for the lucrative domestic and regional trade (especially within the East African Community, DRC, Burundi, Rwanda etc.), which is estimated to exceed the export trade by volume and value (this trade could be worth approximately 600 million Euros).

Monitoring, Control and Surveillance (MCS), is the fundamental underlying support structure towards an effective fisheries management protocol. An efficient MCS structure would provide the means for collection, measurement and analysis of fishing activity, the specification of terms and conditions under which resources can be harvested and the supervision of fishing activity to ensure the terms and conditions of access are in accordance with fisheries policy frameworks and legislative structures, both nationally and regionally.

Fueling this regional trade is the ease at which illegally caught fish can move through borders, there is literally no control. This shift in fishing for undersize Nile perch will effect government revenues (it is now a cash business) earned from the export fishery. The Nile perch fishery over the last decade contributed 0.6% less to the Tanzanian GDP, similarly, a decrease in export trade of Nile perch from Uganda of 14% occurred between 2007 and 2008, resulting in a 0.1% decrease in GDP contribution. By not controlling fishing effort targeting illegal, undersized and immature Nile perch, economic and social hardships will worsen

Is there a solution?

Traveling and conducting MCS mission on Lake Victoria over the past year, I have grappled with numerous ideas, faced social and economic challenges with respect to the fishery industry, reviewed management and MCS tactics/initiatives, and discussed at large with fisheries management authorities within all the riparian states about a solution to this emerging crisis. In the following series of blogs we plan unravel this dilemma by discussing what is and what isn’t happening, and just why we need security when we are on an illegal fisheries compliance mission.


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