Arusha. Fish stocks in Lake Victoria may not meet the demand of the growing population due to a drastic decline in catches, according to experts.
While the overall fish biomass in the shared water body decreased from 1.3 million tonnes recorded in 1999 to 0.8 million tonnes in 2010/11, tilapia catches have plunged manifolds in recent years.
Catches of tilapia, the most consumed freshwater fish, declined sharply to only 20,000 tonnes in 2015 from 60,000 tonnes in the previous year.
The decline has been attributed to over-fishing, illegal fishing in shallow breeding and nursery areas and rising demand of the delicacy in both national and regional markets. Besides, tilapia, scientifically known as Oreochromis niloticus, other commercially important species from the lake are Nile Perch and the endemic Rastrineobola argentea, commonly known as sardines. “As a result of failure to manage fishing, the fishery has declined and some export processing factories closed,” said a report by the Lake Victoria Fisheries Organisation (LVFO).
The findings were discussed in Arusha this week during a stakeholders’ meeting convened by the East African Community (EAC) and the European Union (EU) to launch a 10 million Euro aquaculture project. It said although Nile Perch, an exotic species introduced in the 1950s, formed the basis of the export trade to international markets, 95 per cent of the catch is below the legal minimum size.
In the early 1990s, 500,000 tonnes of Nile Perch were landed annually from Lake Victoria, but this declined significantly in later years. The fisheries sector in the EAC region, including marine fisheries in Tanzania and Kenya, contributes an estimated four per cent of the regional Gross Domestic Product (GDP). It provides employment to over five million people with a total annual catch of 878,000 tonnes of fish, plus an estimated 70,000 tonnes delivered from aquaculture.
The current per capita fish consumption in the region is estimated at seven kilogrammes per year, which is less than the 8.5 kg for Africa and 20kg for the world.
It is estimated that by 2030, population growth alone could absorb at least 623,000 tonnes of additional production at current rates of consumption.
While an estimated 60 per cent of fish production in the region is from the Lake Victoria basin, at one time fish was the second most important Ugandan export commodity after coffee. Nonetheless, experts are worried that fish reproduction may not meet the demand of ever increasing number of consumers in the near future due to ecological constraints. These include deteriorating water quality due to pollution, increased sedimentation, declining water levels and invasive fish and vegetation species, notably water hyacinth for the latter.
“In addition, Lake Victoria is characterised by high annual variability of rainfall and lake inflows,” the report said, adding that the situation could be compounded by climate change impacts.
LVFO executive director Godfrey Manor said there are growing concerns on the declining catches and biomass of fish, particularly the Nile Perch and Tilapia.
“The EAC states are now making efforts to put in place mechanisms to increase fish production through aquaculture,” he told reporters on the sidelines of the meeting.
EAC secretary general Liberat Mfumukeko called for collective efforts to address the crisis.
Mr Mfumukeko said despite efforts by the riparian countries around Lake Victoria - Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya - measures to sustainably manage fisheries remain a challenge due to the drastic decline of the Nile Perch and Tilapia.