A few minutes after 3pm, more than 150 boats set sail from Wadiang'a beach in Sindo town, Homa Bay County, for fishing in Lake Victoria.
On their way into deeper waters, the fishermen, about four in every boat, sail past hundreds of fish cages ready to begin the day’s work.
For more than four years, this has been their routine, heading out every evening only to return with a handful of fish.
For generations, fishermen in Homa Bay, Kisumu, Migori, Siaya, Busia and other counties bordering the lake have relied on traditional methods of fishing for their livelihoods.
To them now it is a game of luck, casting their nets into the water while seated in their boats with the hope of attracting their targets before the nets are pulled back into the vessel.
But the traditional method is becoming unreliable and cumbersome especially at this time when the lake is flooded with boats and fishermen scrambling for the limited fish.
Compounding this problem is pollution in rivers and the lake, overfishing and extinction of fish species.
The reduced stocks can hardly sustain growing demand, with fishmongers placing orders from as far away as Nairobi.
“We spend more than eight hours in the lake but often come back with little, including young fish which can hardly fetch half of what we expect from the market,” says Mr Calvince Otieno, a fisherman at Kisumu's Dunga beach.
Mr Stephen Musee, a fisherman and chairman of Marenga Beach Management Unit in Busia, says a better catch from the lake now requires immense efforts and resources.
“We would fish in seasons but that is no longer the case. For one to have a perfect catch, they must find better fishing equipment or sail into Uganda despite fears of arrest,” he says.
Catching fingerlings for survival
Fish production in the freshwater lake continues to decline, with individuals catching fingerlings for survival, thus worsening the situation.
According to the Homa Bay County Fisheries Director George Okoth, while the fishermen would get up to 100,000 metric tonnes of fish two decades ago, this is no longer the case.
He blamed reduced production on overfishing and illegal and unregulated fishing activities interfering with breeding sites.
The production has now dropped to 25,000 metric tonnes annually on the 142 beaches along the lake.
“Right now, the fish population has dropped to an extent that what fishermen naturally take out of water cannot sustain the existing demand for the delicacy,” he said.
“This challenge is prompted by rogue fishing methods, pollution of the lake and overpopulation which has led to drastic reduction in the fish population, with some fish species on the verge of going extinct.”
Kisumu Agriculture, Irrigation, Livestock and Fisheries executive Gilchrist Okuom, during a previous event, raised concerns about a reduction in fish catches in the lake.
While demand for fish is growing, he said, the human population, illegal fishing and pollution have had an adverse effect on aquatic life leading to extinction of some species.
“We are encouraging fishermen to adopt new technologies in aquaculture, including cage fishing and fish ponds to refill the deficit in the market,” he said.
And while the county governments have been working on introducing cage fishing and fish ponds, the idea is yet to get total acceptance from residents.
In September 2020, the government launched an initiative called the Aquaculture Business Development Programme (ABDP) that is meant to increase fish production in counties around the lake region that have the potential to supply large quantities of fish.
Data from ABDP shows that Kenya has an annual fish deficit of up to 400,000 tonnes, with every citizen consuming three to four kilograms annually while global consumption is 12 kilograms. Fish is imported from China to meet the growing demand.
Enough to sustain residents
Meanwhile, Nyanza, which has one of the largest freshwater lakes, can hardly produce enough to sustain residents in the four counties.
This explains why the country has to import fish from China and neighbouring countries.
The move that is aimed at increasing fish production is yet to get the popularity it deserves, many fishermen now crying foul about increased prices of feeds and insecurity.
“We have had cases of fishermen harvesting fish from cages owned by different people, causing conflicts,” says Mr Tom Otieno, a fisherman at Dunga beach.
“We need security assurance before we can embark on the initiative.”
Homa Bay Senator Moses Kajwang said it is time for fishermen to adapt to changing times if they want to support Kenya's food security.
"Our fishermen have been in the lake for generations and it is time to change [how] we approach fishing. We cannot continue using traditional methods if we want to get wealth out of the lake," he said.
"Jobs have been created through cage fishing. It is a serious transformation that has a big impact on the economy of the country," the legislator said.
ABDP Programme Manager Michael Omondi says some fish species are becoming extinct, with tilapia, catfish and lungfish the most affected.
He says many fishermen have resorted to alternative fishing methods, including using the wrong gear that often disrupts aquatic life.
“The lake had more than 13 species of tilapia but only one has remained predominant, the same applied to lung and catfish,” he said.
He added that new fishing methods also require clear regulations to ensure cage owners do not rear a higher number of fish in a small space thus polluting the lake.
“The government should also come up with alternative sources of livelihoods that will benefit those living around [the lake],” said Mr Omondi.
BY GEORGE ODIWUOR, ANGELINE OCHIENG and OKONG’O ODUYA