SPECIAL REPORT: How Darwinian theory emerged in L.Victoria as Nile perch disappears
>It rose from the ashes to become the backbone of the Lake Zone economy, supporting 300,000 livelihoods directly and another 3 million indirectly, but the Nile perch is now on the brink of extinction, posing a serious threat to Lake Victoria, the world’s second largest fresh water lake.
- EXTINCTION: Six decades after the introduction of Nile perch, there are more nets in the lake than fish
- Nearly 22 years since the Nile perch was first exported from Tanzania, the situation is alarming following a sharp decline in stocks in Lake Victoria caused by, among other factors, overfishing and other unsustainable harvesting methods
- The Nile perch, introduced in Lake Victoria in 1954 by British colonialists, is tottering on the brink of extinction due to unsustainable fishing in the lake
Mwanza. It rose from the ashes to become the backbone of the Lake Zone economy, supporting 300,000 livelihoods directly and another 3 million indirectly, but the Nile perch is now on the brink of extinction, posing a serious threat to Lake Victoria, the world’s second largest fresh water lake.
The Nile perch, or Lates niloticus, as it is known scientifically, is a large freshwater fish introduced in Lake Victoria in 1954 by the British government to increase the fish population and can grow to a length of two metres and weigh 200 kilogrammes.
During the 1980s and early 1990s, before the introduction of fish processing plants in Lake Zone regions, Nile perch, or sangara as it is known among locals here, was virtually valueless and was favoured mainly by ordinary families, which could not afford more expensive fish like tilapia.
But between 1992 and 2004, the Nile perch’s status rose dramatically, becoming a delicacy of the elite in European countries, thanks to findings by scientists that the fish has valuable Omega-3 fatty acids, which help to check heart problems and high blood pressure.
Today, nearly 22 years since the Nile perch was first exported from Tanzania, the situation is alarming following a sharp decline in stocks in Lake Victoria caused by, among other factors, overfishing.
Many fishermen here face a bleak future as Nile perch stocks steadily dwindle, thanks to failure by the government and other stakeholders to enforce sustainable fishing in Lake Victoria.
As fishermen count their losses so do the multimillion-dollar fish processing factories, which have also been forced to lay workers off to stem losses. As a result, jobs have been lost and dreams shattered.
By the end of 2004, for instance, about Sh600 million ($363,000) went directly into the pockets of fishermen and middlemen daily. That was when the export of Nile perch fillet was at its peak.
To put things into simple perspective, thousands of fishermen in Lake Victoria and their middlemen were pocketing a whopping $132 million annually during those golden days.
According to a two-week investigation conducted by The Citizen, which visited fishing camps and fish processors and interviewed various stakeholders, neither cotton nor coffee has ever fetched such a huge amount of money in the past two decades.
By the end of 2006, there were an estimated 200,000 fishermen operating 65,000 boats who were engaged in Nile perch fishing on Tanzania’s side of Lake Victoria.
Over 180 tonnes of fresh Nile perch were being processed daily, ready to be exported to Europe.
EU countries were consuming 80 per cent of the total Nile perch fillet from Lake Victoria, while the rest was exported elsewhere.
The value of annual exports of Nile perch fillet rose from zero in January 1992 to over $180 million by the end of 2004, according to details gathered by The Citizen.
At Mwanza Airport, there was an average of five cargo planes with a capacity of 100 tonnes waiting to fly Nile perch fillet to Europe every week.
Mwanza, a town founded by German colonial agent Emin Pasha in 1892 as the main cotton trading centre, changed gradually from a cotton to Nile perch-oriented economy.
But today, the only legacy remaining here is the statue of a Nile perch located at the junction of Station and Kenyatta roads – a place where amateur photographers earn a living as residents flock to take pictures.
Fishermen are puzzled and don’t know what really happened.
Mr Nestory Kulinda, 61, is now a frustrated man after declining Nile perch stocks brought his once booming fishing business to its knees.
Sitting in front of Travellers Lodge, which he built in 2001 along Zamzam Street in Bukoba when Nile perch was akin to marine gold, Mr Kulinda says: “My fishing boats are gathering fungi at the Igabilo landing site in Bukoba Rural District.
“I built this lodge using the income I got from selling Nile perch. Even the shoes I’m wearing now are from the Nile perch,” says the man who once thrived as one of the leading fishermen in Bukoba.
He says he started the fishing business in 1987 before expanding it in 1993 after the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) issued loans to artisanal fishermen to buy fishing gear.
FAO issued the loans after conducting a survey in the entire East African region, says Mr Kulinda, adding that the study revealed that fishermen in the region were not benefiting from the business.
“FAO found that most of the fishermen remained poor. They could not even afford a transistor radio, let alone a bicycle,” he says, adding that in 1993 he secured a Sh760,000 loan from CRDB Bank through the FAO arrangement.
“I used the loan to buy an outboard engine and fishing hooks. One of the conditions for securing a loan was that one should have a fishing boat,” he says.
He says he started the fishing business and repaid the loan in July 1994, and secured another Sh820,000 loan from CRDB Bank in 1995.
He had already acquired two outboard engines by that time. Between 1995 and 2000, his daily catch averaged a tonne of fresh Nile perch worth Sh1,700,000 ($1000) at the price of Sh1,700 per kilo.
What really happened?
As the demand for Nile perch soared in European countries, so did the number of boats and fishing nets in Lake Victoria.
From fishermen to factory owners, everybody was in a rush to make a killing—and the government opened the door to what Mr Kulinda says was “uncontrolled fishing” in the lake.
From beach seines to small-size fishing nets that catch immature fish, nobody cared—it was survival of the fittest, the law of the jungle in Lake Victoria. A seine is a fishing net that hangs vertically in the water with floats at the top and weights at the bottom edge, the ends being drawn together to encircle the fish.
Mr Kulinda says the problem started in 1995—two years after the first fish processing factory was opened in Mwanza—followed by more plants in Kagera and Mara regions.
“The fish processors started to buy Nile perch in bulk at very attractive prices. Fish agents built huge boats that could carry up to 20 tonnes of Nile perch. There were hundreds of these kinds of boats, which collected fish from small-scale fishermen.”
Mr Kulinda says at that time when he had 30 fishing boats, some of his colleagues had up to 80 fishing boats, turning fishing in Lake Victoria into a free-for-all affair as thousands of fishermen scrambled for rich pickings following the introduction of fish processing plants.
However, according to Mr Kulinda, during that time fishing of immature Nile perch was minimal because there were plenty of mature Nile perch weighing between 3 and 200 kilogrammes.
There was a time when Nile perch floated in the water and fishermen just picked them up.
But that era is gone and fishermen have now turned to fishing immature Nile perch in order to survive.
Today, there are thousands of fishermen like Mr Kulinda whose livelihoods and dreams have been ruined because of the sharp decline in Nile perch stocks in Lake Victoria.
Fish that are allowed to be caught using legal nets are those measuring between 50cm and 85cm long while those measuring above 85cm are not allowed to be fished because they are considered parent stock. Fish weighing under a kilogramme are considered immature.
This scramble for Nile perch, which went unchecked for years, has created an economic as well as an ecological disaster in Lake Victoria, according to some fisheries experts. Today, there are more fishing nets in the lake than fish.
Where was the government?
The Citizen’s efforts to obtain the government’s side of the story of what really happened proved futile for the past two weeks as no one was willing to discuss the current situation in Lake Victoria.
However, the investigation revealed the following: first, the government introduced a ban on beach seines, which were considered a threat to the Nile perch population; second, all fishing nets which measures below five inches were outlawed because they were also considered a threat to immature Nile perch.
During the era of Ms Zakia Meghji as the minister in charge of fisheries affairs, the government also introduced patrols to curb illegal fishing in Lake Victoria.
But all these efforts could not save Nile perch because, according to details gathered by The Citizen, they were not sustainable.
These efforts were in great part also hampered by lack of funding as the government kept complaining that there were no adequate funds to save the lake.
The Citizen established that most of the programmes to save Lake Victoria that initiated between from 1990 to 2000 were donor-funded—financed by European Union, and the World Bank.
“Corruption became the major obstacle in efforts to save the lake because fishermen resorted to bribing fisheries officials at the regional level to allow the use of beach seines and outlawed fishing nets,” a fish processor told The Citizen on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions.
“That’s why today tonnes of immature Nile perch are sold locally and some smuggled to Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Is the ban strictly enforced? Where do these tonnes of immature Nile perch come from? he asks.
“While we pretend to have banned the fishing of immature Nile perch, our fishermen continue to fish and smuggle juvenile to Kenya where they are bought by fish processors.”
The Citizen has established that Kenya, which has only six per cent of Lake Victoria but more fish processing plants than Tanzania and Uganda, which jointly own 94 per cent of the lake, had greatly benefited from the ban imposed by Tanzanian government.
Courtesy of the porous border in Lake Victoria, smugglers from Tanzania have been ferrying thousands of tonnes annually to Kenya.
“We both agreed that the three countries should introduce sustainable fishing by stopping buying, processing and exporting immature Nile perch, but our counterparts in Kenya have been doing the opposite.
“They are even offering higher prices than us in order to attract fish smugglers from Tanzania…the result is that by smuggling immature fish, we kill the lake as well as thousands of jobs,” the Tanzanian processor says.
In 2004, having experienced what seasonal fishing could bring to Lake Victoria, fisheries experts from the three countries sharing the lake proposed an introduction of seasonal fishing—fishing for nine months a year and a three-month halt to allow Nile perch to reproduce.
But because of lack of joint efforts to coordinate the proposal and greed among both fish processors and fishermen, the idea did not work.
When EU countries imposed a one-year ban on Lake Victoria fish following allegations of the use of pesticides by fishermen, Nile perch stocks almost tripled.
“What we saw during the one year actually convinced us that if we can jointly enforce seasonal fishing, we would allow Nile perch to reproduce, but there was no political will among EAC members,” the processor says.
Another processor, who also did not want to be named, says: “This is what is going to lead to the demise of the Nile perch,” warns the industry source, suggesting that if the government sets aside about $2 million (Sh3.4 billion) per year for the removal of illegal fishing gear, the Nile perch will rebound rapidly as it is a prolific breeder. One female Nile perch lays between 10 million and 20 million eggs annually.” He adds that this money could be recovered through increased revenues in royalty, taxes and VAT on goods that would be traded.
But today it is business as usual as fishermen fish 24 hours a day, 365 days as they scramble for dwindling Nile perch stocks in Lake Victoria.
“When Uganda wants to fight Kenya over a tiny island in Lake Victoria, it’s not just about a piece of land, but Nile perch…we have come from plenty to almost nothing,” the processor further told The Citizen.
According to details gathered by The Citizen, over 2,000 people employed in 11 Nile perch processing factories in Mwanza, Kagera and Mara regions might have lost their jobs as factories take measures to cope with the situation.
Some fish processing factories have already closed down—and more could follow as the situation worsens further.
Not only factory’s workers who are affected by the extinction of Nile perch.
Food vendors commonly referred to as mama ntilie, fishing boat makers, fuel retailers, and street hawkers will definitely be badly hit. Local government authorities and the central government will no longer get royalties from the fish. Fishing boat owners, boat crew members, fish agents and handlers, fish traders and processors, cooks, net mounters and repairers and bait fishers and suppliers who make a living directly from the exploitation of the Nile perch are also to be affected.
And the chain of those to be affected by the depletion of the Nile perch is very long.
Mr Ben Mashimba, a long-time fisherman, says the dwindling catches of the Nile perch has affected a good number of wealthy fishermen in the Rock City.
“Five years ago the five minutes we have been here (along Makongoro Street) we could have counted not less than 10 posh cars belonging to the wealthy fishermen. Today you hardly count one such car on our roads,” says Mr Mashimba.
Mr Mashimba says most of the wealthy fishermen who had secured loans to buy fishing boats have run bankrupt, forcing them to sell their posh cars and houses to repay their loans.
One of the wealthy fishermen, who declined to give his name for what he described as feeling ashamed, says he sold his house to repay loans he had secured to buy fishing boats.
He says: “Some of us secured loans amounting to Sh200 million to buy fishing boat engines, fuel and other gear. But with the dwindling Nile perch catches we are forced to sell our property, including houses, to repay the loans.”
“Most of the posh houses you see in this city (Mwanza) were built during those glory days when the Nile perch was our saviour or mkombozi in Kiswahili,” he adds.
Before 2010 he used to fish 20 tonnes of Nile perch in three days for one fishing boat but nowadays he gets five tonnes only after toiling for about a month.
The fisherman observes: “Mwanza thrived on the Nile perch, gold and cotton. But the Nile perch is on extinction, gold is not benefiting us and cotton is also faced with a myriad of problems.”
In a controversial film, which angered authorities here, one fishermen summed what happened in Lake Victoria as “survival of the fittest”—a theory developed by Charles Robert Darwin, a UK geologist and naturalist who lived between 1809 and 1882.
Tomorrow: How Nile perch proved Darwin’s theory in Lake Victoria