What you need to know:
- Local authorities blame dwindling stocks on overfishing and harmful practices that harm the ecosystem.
- Some rules set to regulate the fishing of omena in Lake Victoria have largely been ignored.
As thousands return to the warmth of their families at dusk, fishermen in Lake Victoria assemble their gear for the long night ahead, braving the elements to support their families from one of the oldest professions.
There are days when they are blessed with a great catch. But on other days they return ashore empty handed.
Every successful expedition in the lake is considered a miracle.
Sometimes they find themselves in the crosshairs of foreign forces, particularly Ugandan and Tanzanian security agents, when they accidentally cross the boundaries.
Now dwindling stocks in the lake, are forcing the fishermen to come up with strategies to sustain a steady supply of mbuta (Nile perch), ngege (tilapia), kamongo (lung fish), dagaa or omena (silver cyprinid) and mumi (mudfish).
We recently visited fishermen at Litare Beach in Rusinga Island, Mbita Sub-county. In the evening, they inspect their motorised boats for any leaks, then fill the engines with petrol. Each of them has a reflector jacket for safety and a raincoat.
In the vessels, there are fishing nets and solar-powered lights that are essential in catching silver cyprinid or sardines (omena or dagaa).
After they set out at 7pm, they switch on the lights, which act as a bait, and patiently wait for fish to swim towards the nets.
Unlucky fishermen catch ochonga – a fish smaller than omena – which is used as chicken feed.
Mr George Omondi says when he started out in 1994, they were using kerosene lanterns and omena fishing was regulated.
He says he started noticing dwindling quantities in the early 2000s when fishermen started replacing lanterns with bright LED lights.
“The lanterns used to have limited light and controlled the catch. The LED lights are very powerful and attract a lot of fish, which are taken out at once,” says Mr Omondi.
Dozens of boats with these bright lights spread out over hundreds of kilometres every night. One boat can have up to five LED lights, which are mounted on wooden frames. The technique attracts fish located deep in the lake.
“There’s no space for fish to breed and multiply. This reduces the amount of fish we get each day,” the fisherman says.
Some rules set to regulate the fishing of omena have largely been ignored. In the past, fishing was prohibited when the moon was bright to encourage breeding. Today, Mr Omondi says, nobody gives fish chance to breed or cares how they get the fish. The end justifies the means.
The reckless abandon with which the fishing communities are going about their activities is beginning to take a toll on their fortunes. When the nets are pulled out of the water, just a small quantity of omena is scooped out.
The reality of what’s happening in the lake usually becomes evident at 5am when the first boat approaches the beach. The fishermen have returned empty handed after spending up to nine hours out in the lake.
For the lucky few who have a catch, a scramble for the available omena by traders ensues. After about an hour of haggling and compromises, the noise subsides and boats are docked along the shores, waiting for dusk again.
At Litare Beach, traders use water troughs to measure the quantity of omena for sale. Each trough of omena costs Sh1,000.
About two decades ago, it was easy to fill up to 10 troughs and a kilo was sold at Sh400. Now, a team of about six fishermen has to share the profits and losses of two troughs of fish with the boat owner.
“At the end of the working shift, a fisherman will walk home with less than Sh500, which cannot sustain most families,” offers Mr Omondi.
Litare Beach has 200 registered fishing boats and there are other applications awaiting approval. The more the boats, the tougher the job.
But the challenges do not only affect fishermen going out for omena.
Nile perch affected
At Sare Beach in Suba Sub-county where Nile perch (mbuta) is common, fishermen are also complaining about dwindling stocks.
Sub-county Beach Management Unit chairman William Onditi says the catch has been decreasing daily and it’s causing worries. The Nile perch was introduced to the lake in the 1950s.
Its population grew exponentially and became a threat to other species of fish, which are their prey. Today, the Nile perch is under threat of extinction due to uncontrolled fishing.
Those out for quick cash have been taking out juvenile fish.
Mature Nile perch can measure up to seven kilogrammes, but some fishermen take them out of water when they weigh a fraction of a kilo. At the local markets, juvenile fish are sold in plenty.
At Sare Beach, Nile perch stocks have also reduced. The daily catch is less than a tonne, down from 10 tonnes in 2016.
Factories that used to run the local economy no longer hire people in production of processed fish. Only one fish factory, Lake Treasures Limited, is operating in Homa Bay County. It’s one of the two firms in Nyanza that are still in operation after others closed shop.
Lake Treasures Ltd General Manager Surendra Shetty says the company used to process up to 15 tonnes of fish daily in 2009.
All machines at the plant based in Mbita town were running and they had hired more than 200 workers. Most of the processed fish was exported to the European Union. It now takes up to two weeks to process 15 tonnes of fish.
“We sometimes operate three times a week unlike before when we operated six times a week. We now source for fish from Homa Bay and Siaya, but what we get is below our processing capacity,” says Mr Shetty.
Homa Bay Fisheries director George Okoth says the county used to produce 100,000 metric tonnes of fish two decades ago, but it’s now down to 25,000 metric tonnes.
Because of an increasing number of fishermen, government officials say it is hard keeping an eye on each boat. Fishermen have taken advantage of this to engage in practices that harm the lake ecosystem.
Homa Bay County agriculture executive Aguko Juma laments that many fishermen employ poor practices to meet the high demand for fish. Trawling, which is illegal, is also common. This is where a large net is pulled along the lake floor to catch fish.
The Kenya Coast Guard and Kenya Maritime Authority (KMA) are fighting such practices but notorious fishermen are always a step ahead.
To reduce the pressure on the resources in the lake, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries now encourages fish ponds.
In September last year, the State launched the Aquaculture Business Development Programme to increase fish production in the country.
The Sh15 billion International Fund for Agriculture Development-funded project proposed methods to maintain supply through fish ponds. Farmers would be supplied with inputs.
Those who embraced the initiative are laughing their way to the bank today after their production increased by more than 35 per cent during the harvest season in August.
Ministry of Agriculture Chief Administrative Secretary Lawrence Omuhaka says the department will supply farmers in Migori and Homa Bay with inputs to enable them meet the required target of 100,000 metric tonnes annually through promotion of commercialised aquaculture.