Towards the end of last year, Mr Cleophas Olando was among more than 500 fishermen who flocked Lake Nakuru to cash in on an industry that largely remained unregulated.
Soon after arrival, Mr Olando and the other fishermen were making a killing as authorities here were yet to set rules on fishing or register the operators, as was the case in other lakes.
It was free for all, and money would flow like the tides sweeping across the lake.
So high were the returns that, on average, Mr Olando was raking in up to Sh60,000 a day.
“The business was booming and the returns were good…we used to earn handsome returns from our fishing activities,” he told the Nation.
The party ended when the Nakuru County government halted fishing in Lake Nakuru after a research by the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (Kemfri) showed that mass deaths of fish in the lake late last year resulted from high levels of nitrates and other chemicals.
Kemfri, in their report, stated that fish from Lake Nakuru was not fit for human consumption.
On the January 2020 fish deaths, the report cites toxicity as the cause.
No stringent regulations
The ban came at a time most fishermen from Naivasha had relocated to Lake Nakuru, where the trade was more lucrative due to lack of stringent regulations and membership terms and conditions.
A quick observation by the researchers concluded that, of the four fish species found in Lake Nakuru, Nile tilapia was the most affected.
Most of the dead fish were relatively larger in size, considering the average size range found in the lake.
“The mortality began at an undisclosed hour and continued until all fish were dead or until the substance had been degraded, neutralised or diluted,” noted the report.
Apart from nitrates, the concentration of chlorophyll-a in the fish was found to be 84.49 milligrams/litre (mgl-1) while others had a concentration of 77.35 mgl-1.
“Some of the points within Lake Nakuru were found to have nitrates at a concentration of 67 milligrams/litre and indicative of organic and inorganic discharge into the lake, possibly originating from industrial or municipal waste. The concentration of chlorophyll-a, the report notes, is indicative of excessive nutrient loads in the water, which led to an increase in algae biomass.
“The availability of algae in large numbers may have also led to increased biomass,” the researchers stated in their findings.
According to Nakuru Livestock and Fisheries Chief Officer Enos Amuyunzu, more samples were taken for examination.
Scientist and lead researcher George Morara called for an in-depth research to establish the levels of contamination, especially with regard to heavy metals in the fish tissues.
Fishing activities in Lake Nakuru were largely being carried out near the game reserve and private farms, but with the recent concerns on the quality of fish, people here too have been blocked from accessing the lake.
The Nation has learnt that officials from the Nakuru County Health Department and the Kenya Wildlife Service have been manning the fishing points to keep away both commercial and subsistence fishers.
“We have been blocked from going to fish after researchers raised concerns over the water quality. We are waiting for the findings to know our fate. Most of my colleagues have ventured into other businesses but there are those that have gone to other lakes,” added Mr Olando.
He described the fishing opportunity they had as “God-sent”.
“We used to sell the fish in Nakuru, Nairobi, Kitale and Kisumu, where we enjoyed a ready market,” added Mr Olando.
Fishmongers had also erected semi-permanent structures on hired plots where they prepared and sold fish to the many clients who would walk to the shores for a bite.
Moved to Nakuru
After the fisheries department tightened the screws on illegal fishing in Lake Naivasha, the majority of the unlicensed fish operators moved to Nakuru.
“We had an influx of lake operators moving to Nakuru. I’m talking of about 60 per cent of the boat operators who left Naivasha,” said seasoned fisherman David Kilo.
Mr Kilo called for a speedy analysis of the samples, saying the industry is a source of livelihood for hundreds of young people.
“The report by the research agency has scared the majority of fishmongers and it is only prudent to clear doubts about the quality of species caught in the lake,” he added.
Fishmongers and hotels that used to get fish from the lake said they have had to look for other sources.
“Just a small percentage of what we used to receive was actually from Lake Nakuru. We source our fish from as far as Lake Victoria and Turkwel. There was also a number of private aquaculturists who used to supply us with fish and they still do,” Ms Caroline Teule, a fishmonger in Nakuru, said.
Rotted very fast
Another fish trader, Mr Daniel Onyango, said he stopped selling fish from Lake Nakuru early last year, because he noticed that it rotted very fast, leading to huge losses.
“I cannot trade in that fish. I always ask where fish I am about to buy is from. Those who are selling the different species from the lake have incurred losses due to its fast rotting,” Mr Onyango said.
Nakuru County Public Health Director Elizabeth Kiptoo said they are waiting for conclusive reports from the Government Chemist before taking the “necessary measures”.
“We shall, definitely, enforce the obligatory laws after the results from the samples taken to the government chemist are out,” she told the Nation.
Dr Kiptoo added that they were working with the Food and Security Committee to address the current situation.
Waiting for results
Dr Amuyunzu said the samples were taken for examination early in the year.
“As a department, we have already presented the samples and we are waiting for the results to irrefutably table our findings,” said Dr Amuyunzu.
Lake Nakuru, an alkaline water body, was for many years inhabited by cichlid, a small type of fish that is able to tolerate harsh conditions. The fish was introduced in the early 1960s and has flourished in the lake, with its catch amounting to 400 tonnes in dry weight.