Fishermen in Lake Turkana have welcomed a proposal to put identification numbers on their boats, in the latest bid to solve the perennial problem of theft of fishing gears, which has resulted in unending rows with their neighbours, the Merille community of Ethiopia.
The fishermen, drawn from Todonyang and Lowarengeak villages along the shores of the lake, said that their attempts to embrace commercial fishing have always hit a snag due to frequent militia attacks.
The attacks by the Merille have for over a decade remained a threat to commercial fishing in Lake Turkana, an otherwise viable commercial venture for the locals.
In series of attacks related to fishing, more than 200 Kenyans have been killed since May 2011, when a massacre left 46 people dead in Todonyang village.
Mr Francis Ekitela, a resident of Todonyang, told the Nation that he was forced to abandon fishing four years ago after eight of his friends were shot dead on different days while in the lake and all their fishing equipment, especially boats and nets, stolen.
"Attempts to have the boats recovered by involving authorities from both countries didn't bear fruit because there was no way we could identify the boats," Mr Ekitela said.
Things were so good, Mr Ekitela said, that the national government had constructed a fish holding store where they would keep their catch which would later be sold to as far as Busia, Nairobi and the neighbouring countries of Uganda, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“We used to make over Sh4 million per week but due to frequent killings and failure to recover stolen nets we had to scale down,” recalled Mr Ekitela, who is now a police reservist.
Mr Ibrahim Ewoton said that they were yet to see the need to adopt sophisticated fishing equipment like fiber glass boats which they say would just be like free gifts to their neighbors.
"With the numbering system, improved security surveillance in the lake as well as posting of marine officers to maintain law and order, we will embark on commercial fishing and earn more income," Mr Ewoton said on the sidelines of a public participation forum on proposals for boat identification organised by the Kenya Maritime Authority (KMA).
He regretted that most of those who lost boats and loved ones to militias fled Todonyang fishing zones, giving room to Merille fishermen who have camped at least 10 kilometers inside the Kenyan territory.
KMA North Coast Regional Manager Alex Munga said public participation on the issue of vessel identification and marking system that the government, through the authority, intends to introduce in the sector is aimed at enhancing compliance with maritime and fisheries laws for effective governance of the industry.
Mr Munga said that the proposed new numbering system emanates from the provisions of the Merchant Shipping Act of 2009, Vessels Licensing Regulations, 2012 and Vessels Safety Regulations, 2012.
"This is a law that has been in existence for more than a decade. The approach the authority has taken all along is public sensitisation because it is now time we introduce the numbering system and enhance security in our lakes and ocean especially in border counties like Turkana, Kwale and Lamu,” he explained.
He said that in the busy Lake Victoria, which is shared by Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, it will be easy for authorities to identify vessels that belongs to Kenyans and differentiate them from foreign vessels from different regulatory regimes.
"If successful, boat owners will also be empowered to easily access loan facilities and insurance that they have never enjoyed because of lack of a rigid registration system," Mr Munga said.
Kenya Maritime Authority, which is working together with a multi-agency team that also comprises the Kenya Coast Guards Service and county departments of fisheries has proposed different categories of vessel registration. These are fishing, passenger, tourism and cargo vessels used for trade and transporting residents across islands especially in Lake Victoria, Lake Turkana and Lake Baringo.
Kenya Coast Guards Service officer in charge of Lake Turkana station Edwin Angaya said that the numbering system will bring sanity within the lake. He said there will have stations at Lowarengeak, Eliye Springs, Kalokol, Ileret and Loiyangalani.
"This system will help us identify people that will be dealing in illegal fishing activities, theft and militia activities, and those dealing in contraband trade. We will easily track owners of the boats because the vessel numbers will have an electronic chip that we will rely on to encode all the necessary details and facilitate prompt arrests," Mr Angaya said.
County Fisheries Officer Robert Kibunjia said that over 200,000 people in Turkana rely directly on fishing as the second largest economic activity after pastoralism.
“With improved security the county is anticipating 15,100 tons of fish annually that will earn an estimated Sh590 million up from an annual average of 9,800 tons that fetches Sh381 million,” said Mr Kibunjia.
Francis Eporon, chairman of Samuel Beach Management Unit in Kerio Delta Ward, said that it will be easy to identify and report suspicious people in the lake with ill intensions.
Mr Epuron said that he is eager to get a log book for his boats which he hopes to rely on to take loans from banks to expand his fishing business.
"When the government starts issuing numbers for our boats, there should be security personnel so that when we identify a culprit it will be easy for the officers to arrest him or her, “he said.