Inside the thriving illegal fishing trade in Lake Nakuru

Lake Nakuru illegal fishing

 An arrested suspect found conducting illegal fishing in Lake Nakuru and the 269 kilograms of fish they were caught with.

Photo credit: Boniface Mwangi|Nation

What you need to know:

  • Despite the dangers, illegal fishing remains lucrative for many like Mark, with daily earnings sometimes exceeding Sh2,000.
  • A recent study by Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute established the presence of arsenic compounds in fish and the Lake Nakuru National Park, a protected wetland and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) World Heritage Site.


When Lake Nakuru's water levels surged four years ago, swallowing homes and farmlands, it inadvertently opened up new opportunities for some residents in the form of illegal fishing.
Some locals found themselves transitioning into the unexpected source of livelihood in areas like Barut and Mwariki within Nakuru Town West Constituency, as the once-dry ground had now become submerged under the lake's continuing overflow.
As the waters continued to rise, residents found themselves casting nets where they once grew crops with wet farms, turning to fertile fishing grounds, attracting locals eager to capitalise on this newfound resource.
What started with a few individuals casting lines soon grew into a full-fledged industry, with makeshift structures emerging along the lake's edge.

Read: Beware! Lake Nakuru fish is poisonous, declares CS Salim Mvurya
With time, these structures served as fresh fish kiosks, where the day's catch is cleaned, cooked and sold to residents and tourists alike.
Interestingly, the surge in fishing activities didn't go unnoticed, especially by fishermen from neighbouring Lake Naivasha, who saw an opportunity in the rising waters of Lake Nakuru.
By August 2020, over 50 wooden fishing boats were illegally operating on Lake Nakuru, manned by fishermen seeking to capitalise on the abundance of fish in the newly formed water bodies.
Despite facing numerous challenges, including encounters with wildlife and law enforcement officers, the fishing community persevered as fishing operations became more organised and efficient.

Nakuru fishing

Deep-fried fish at an outlet in Nakuru Town.

Photo credit: Boniface Mwangi|Nation

That newfound livelihood, however, took a dark turn in 2021 when the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI) declared Lake Nakuru fish unfit for human consumption.
Reports of accelerated fish decay and elevated levels of nitrates in the lake water raised concerns about the safety of their catch.
In January 2024, the government officially confirmed the unsuitability of fish from Lake Nakuru for human consumption.
Mining and Blue Economy Cabinet Secretary Salim Mvurya cited high levels of toxic arsenic metal in the fish, posing significant health risks to consumers.
A investigation can reveal that despite these warnings, the banned fish continues to flood various markets, jeopardising human health.

Read: Revealed: Why fish in Lake Nakuru are dying
Many unemployed youth continue to engage in illegal fishing, driven by economic necessity and a lack of viable alternatives.
A visit to Lake Nakuru paints a bleak picture of the fish supply chain.
The men have been conducting their illegal fishing activities openly despite Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) operations to halt them.
Most youth aged between 20 and 30 stay on the lookout for KWS officers from a distance before venturing into the lake through gaps in the fence.

Illegal fishing Nakuru

Youths conduct illegal fishing in Lake Nakuru. 

Photo credit: Boniface Mwangi|Nation

For three weeks, Nation.Africa pursued the fishermen and their daily routines to get more insights into their illegal operations.
Mark* (not his real name) is a 23-year-old fisherman who shared their covert operations and how they avoid detection by officers.
He revealed that they typically arrive at the lake as early as 4am, casting their nets before attending to other tasks.
They choose to fish in the morning when law enforcement officers are less likely to be active, as arrests often result in harsh treatment and torture.
Together with fellow fishermen, Mark keeps watch from a distance, utilising an open ground left behind by submerged houses.
They wait for a signal indicating the absence of officers before venturing into the lake. Once all is clear, over 50 young people emerge from their hideouts and rush to the water.
“By early morning, the KWS rangers are usually not around for the normal patrols. But in case there are arrests, victims are tortured and left for dead,” Mark told Nation.Africa.

Read: The slow death of Lake Nakuru
Dressed in shorts and armed with sacks, Mark heads back to the lake around 2pm.
On the day, Nation.Africa accompanied the team on the illegal fishing expedition, and Mark returned just after 30 minutes with a sack full of fish.
“It is a very risky affair as there are encounters with hippopotamuses and harsh treatment by KWS officers. But we do this to get money to buy food for our children and pay school fees. We have no other means,” Mark says.
Despite the dangers, illegal fishing remains lucrative for many like Mark, with daily earnings sometimes exceeding Sh2,000.
A recent study by Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute established the presence of arsenic compounds in fish and the Lake Nakuru National Park, a protected wetland and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) World Heritage Site.
The study, commissioned by the Mining and Blue Economy ministry, revealed that fish in the lake contain high levels of arsenic metal that is “highly toxic and dangerous to humans."

Read: New hope for flamingo birds in Lake Nakuru
Researchers have blamed it on the pollution of Lake Nakuru, noting that over 65 per cent of human waste ends up in the lake untreated due to inefficient transport and treatment. Solid waste and stormwater and drainage management is also limited.
Metals including arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, nickel, mercury, selenium, cobalt, copper and zinc are the most frequently occurring heavy metals in Lake Nakuru water, with molybdenum reported exceeding the recommended standards.
Raw sewage from Nakuru City and residential areas is not effectively recycled and ends up in the lake.
This explains the diminishing numbers of flamingos that once dotted the shorelines.
The problem is worsened by the discharge of industrial waste and chemicals generated by factories within Nakuru City.
KWS assistant director Titus Mitau noted that at least 56 people have been arrested this year, 21 in January and 35 in February.
He called upon the community around the lake and other stakeholders to join hands in the fight against the business.
Mr Mitau warned that the business activity subjects Kenyans to health risks since the fish is considered harmful.
"As KWS, our job will be to enforce the law that directs no fishing in the lake while we urge the residents to shun from the fishing," he said.
The fish from the lake is said to be consumed by the locals while part of it is sold in other parts of the country.
Last year, KWS Senior Assistant Director in charge of the Central Rift Conservation area Joseph Dadacha said more than 400 fishermen were arrested between 2020-2023.
He said that illegal fishing rose in 2021 after fishermen encroached on the lake and started fishing without a license from KWS.

A man carries harvested fish from Lake Nakuru in sacks after conducting illegal fishing in the park. 

According to Mr Dadacha, the high number of arrests and confiscations is due to an influx of fishermen in protected areas, especially the park.
He noted that fishing remains illegal in the park.
“We are releasing the boats back to the owners. Most of them have court cases, some of the accused persons have absconded court sessions and warrants of arrest were issued. We have engaged with the relevant authority and we are working out a modality of getting out of court settlement," he noted
Ms Grace Kimani, a fisherwoman, said that her boat worth Sh200,000, was confiscated in 2021 while they were on their routine fishing.
“We are here to take our boats which had been impounded in 2020 and 2021 during Covid 19 period. We have been following the matter for the past two years, we are happy that the matters will be settled out of court. The boat and engines impounded by KWS and engines were very expensive, each costing sh250, 000 and engines Sh200, 000,” she said.

Additional reporting by Joseph Openda and Eric Matara.