- Illegal activities on Ugandan lakes, according to Dr Edward Rukuunya, the director of Fisheries Resources in the Ministry of Agriculture and Dr Anthony Taabu-Munyaho, the National Fisheries Resources Research Institute executive director, have crippled fish stocks and in response President Museveni has ordered the army to intervene.
- Each boat is expected to have at least two fishermen, meaning there are more than 30,000 fishermen on Lake Victoria who use boats.
Mr Richard Ssengooba, 37, had for the past 13 years based on Gunga Landing Site on Lake Victoria to fish in the East African shared water body. He has all this time been using monofilaments nets to trap fish.
On a weekly basis, he would collect up to three tonnes of immature fish and sell to cross border fish dealers who would subsequently smuggle it out to DR Congo. From the catch, he would pocket at least Shs300,000.
When an operation was ordered by President Museveni to get rid of illegal fishing on lakes and rivers across the country in February last year, Mr Ssengooba was among the first culprits to be arrested, arraigned in court. However, he was pardoned after pleading guilty to the charge.
Surprisingly, after he was pardoned, Mr Ssengooba did not give up illegal fishing.
“I continued to use monofilament. I had no option since the legal gears are expensive,” he says.
He was again arrested in July last year by the same task force, arraigned before court and pleaded guilty to the charges again.
Magistrate Paul Owiny Absalom sentenced him to three months in Kalangala Town Council prison.
This time, all Ssengooba’s illegal fishing gears were confiscated and burnt.
“After serving my punishment, I had nowhere to start from. I decided to get back to Katebo in Mpigi District where I had come from and decided to start a new life,” he says.
Currently, he is unemployed but “it is difficult to buy legal fishing nets since they are very expensive”.
An acceptable fishing net cost up to Shs50,000 and it requires one to have up to 60 fishing nets for them to start fishing. This would cost about Shs3m.
Mr Ssengooba’s story is a mirror image of bad fishing habits that fishermen use to milk lakes of fish without caring on how their actions could impact the industry.
Mr Earnest Kakande, a fisherman at Butulume Landing Site was ordered to leave Mazinga Sub-county in September last year where he operated after he was routinely found with illegal fishing nets.
“I was reported by fellow residents after the army threatened to close down the landing site. I had refused to surrender my gear since it was my only source of income,” he says.
He has since resigned to farming in Mityana District to provide for his extended family.
“I used to spend Shs50,000 daily to cater for the family and also help construct my father’s house. Before I would finish the house, the army started the operations. I had not started up an income generating activity as an alternative,” Mr Kakande says.
Enter the army
Such illegal activities on Ugandan lakes, according to Dr Edward Rukuunya, the director of Fisheries Resources in the Ministry of Agriculture and Dr Anthony Taabu-Munyaho, the National Fisheries Resources Research Institute executive director, have crippled fish stocks and in response President Museveni has ordered the army to intervene.
The army, under Maj James Nuwagaba, has been working jointly with the Fisheries Department, Uganda Revenue Authority, fish processors and police to stop illegal activities on the lakes.
Close to a year into the operation now, fishing nets and boats worth billions of shillings have been burnt by and the culprits prosecuted.
However, the operation has allowed enough time for fish to mate and grow before being fished with a Status of Fish Stocks in Lake Victoria 2017 survey report released in December showing a record increase.
The survey was done by NaFIRRI, Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (Kenya), and Tanzania Fisheries Research Institute.
The Lake Victoria Fisheries Organisation, which conducts independent stock monitoring surveys in the lake every year, coordinated the survey.
The most commercial fish species in the lake, Nile Perch (mputa), have increased by 30 per cent and so have haplochromines (nkeje) stocks.
“We are now in discussions to see if a factory can be opened by May next year . We can open two [factories] but for now, we want one that we can feed 100 per cent,” Maj Nuwagaba said in an interview last December.
In 2016, Mr Phillip Borel, the vice chairperson Uganda Fish Processors and Exporters Association (UFPEA), told Daily Monitor that some of their members had been pushed out of business because of low fish catch, a trend that started in 2005.
Some of the industries that have closed in the last two years include Marine and Agro, Oakwood, Fresh Water, Igloo, Tampa Fisheries, Tropical Fish, Universal Foods and Ngege.
Data on fish stock availed in 2016 by UFPEA chief executive director Katiti Matovu, indicates a worrying decline in fish stocks that has led to closure of factories and rendered nearly 1.3 million people jobless.
“Our climax was in 2005 when the sector was doing very well,” Ms Matovu said in an interview then.
Ridding on army success, President Museveni is set to meet MPs from the island districts in a meeting that could throw thousands of fishermen out of fishing.
“We must answer three questions [with island MPs]: “Who should be on the lake, why and how?” Mr Museveni said on December 31 last year in a New Year message.
“It cannot be correct to allow the flooding of the lake with uncontrolled numbers of human beings. The lakes are like a mining area or natural forest. People are extracting products put there by God in the interests of all Ugandans, including those who are not fishermen,” he added.
“Allowing people on the lake, therefore, must be in a deliberate, disciplined way. People who argue that everybody must be allowed on the lake because we are all Ugandans are enemies of our country,” Mr Museveni said.
Numbers on Lake Victoria
A recent survey by Association of Fishers and Lake Users of Uganda put the number of boats on Lake Victoria to 15,000.
Each boat is expected to have at least two fishermen, meaning there are more than 30,000 fishermen on Lake Victoria who use boats.
Before the army started operations on the lakes, there were several other interventions aimed at curbing illegal fishing but their success is debatable.
The government formed Beach Management Units (BMU), sensitised fishermen about the dangers of trapping immature fish and SmartFish, a regional fisheries programme funded by the European Union to tackle illegal fishing on Lake Victoria also joined the fight.
Also, in places such as Mukono District, some leaders had started banning fishing for some months but since fishermen solely depend on the lakes for survival, adherence become a problem.
BMU, which was later disbanded, had grown to more than 350 BMUs on Lake Victoria alone but Dr Taabu-Munyaho said corruption rendered their work ineffective.
“These BMU chairmen turned fishermen into their employees. Boats belonged to them so it was impossible for them to stop illegal fishing because they were the beneficiaries,” Dr Taabu-Munyaho said.
“The other problem is politics. When it is election time, you cannot enforce the law on the lake. You have to wait until the electioneering is over,” he added.
Even the paramilitary enforcement on the lakes turned into deal-making.
A source in the Fisheries Ministry said they would arrest illegal fishing gear from one beach and then sale the same to another island. The circle continued at the disadvantage of fish stocks.
Mr Donald Okumu, a former BMU chairperson at Lutoboka Landing Site in Kalangala Town, confesses to condoning illegal fishing despite being a leader to stop the vice.
He was later arrested for the same and pleaded guilty, lamenting that he was looking for an income.
“All my children are still in school and I needed quick money to help them. Any means were appropriate,” he told the soldiers who arrested him in the Lutoboka bay.
Mr Okumu came to Kalangala 20 years ago from Bukedi region.
Mr Adam Ssekitooleko, also a former BMU officer at Gunga Landing Site, said he was lenient to many of the islanders because these are “fellow citizens who we live within the communities”.
“For instance, you arrest a neighbour and the whole village would turn against you. In some instances, we would move with police officers and we would let them down as we plead to free the fishermen caught in illegal activities,” he said.
Earlier efforts. Before the army stepped in, there had been a number of initiatives such as Beach Management Units, whose achievement towards curbing illegal fishing is debatable. The fact that many of them were beneficiaries in fishing made it impossible to effectively curb the vice that had spread to many lakes across the country.
Over the last 15 years, the fisheries sector has played an important social and economic role in the country as one of the key foreign exchange earners, contributing 2.6 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and 12 per cent to agricultural GDP.
Fish exports to overseas markets increased from 1,664 tonness valued at $1.4m (Shs5b) in 1990 to a peak of 36,615 tonnes valued at $143.6m (Shs517b) in 2005.
Declining earnings. From 2005, export earnings decreased to 17,597 tonnes worth $134.791m (Shs485b) by 2014, earnings had dropped further to $113m (Shs409b).
Driving up prices. As fish stocks continued to decline, which according to Ms Betty Nyeko, a fish monger on Ggaba Landing Site, escalated prices making fish unaffordable.
Like at the beginning of last year, Ms Nyeko says a Nile Perch of about 11 inches would cost more than Shs20, 000.