Lake Victoria, the world’s second largest fresh water lake is under threat from irresponsible human activities. Therefore, until World Environment Day on June 5, Vision Group media platforms is running investigative articles, programmes and commentaries in season two of a campaign to save the lake.
By Gerald Tenywa & Henry Nsubuga
Simon Opus, a fisherman at Buwangwe landing site in Buvuma Island on Lake Victoria remembers the tough times they suffered as a result of over-fishing.
“We would spend the whole night fishing, only to catch immature fish, which would bring in less than sh100,000,” said Opus.
He added this was a loss, considering that one could earn as much as sh200,000 from one mature fish. As the fish numbers dwindled, fishermen resorted to using small nets until there was nothing left to catch.
In some cases, the desperate fishermen took to using poison to catch fish. This, according to Abdul Kyaye, the chairperson of the Beach Management Unit (BMU) chairman at Zinga landing site in Busamuzi subcounty was a case of trouble begetting trouble.
“We had to end over-fishing,” said Kyaye.
Caught between bad fishing practices and the Government officials who were dragging their feet, the fishermen opted to take charge of their destiny. First, undersized nets were banned and fishermen caught using them were jailed for as long as six months, according to Kyaye.
Secondly, fish breeding grounds were cordoned off for three to six months. The breeding grounds were closed to fishing from April to July, which at times extended to October. The conservation efforts, which started in 2006 are paying off.
“There is plenty of fish whenever the breeding grounds are opened and the fishermen are happy,” said Kyaye.
He added that they had closed off part of the lake for about a month and the fishermen are already netting higher catches. However, this was not always the case as the fishermen lacked the backing of the local authorities.
“When legitimate fishermen come together, LCs do not support them and seem to prefer to work with illegal ones,” said Kyaye.
He added: “The catches had dropped to about 100kg in most landing sites at Zinga, but now the catches have doubled after only four weeks.”
In addition to Zinga, sustainable fishing practices are taking root in two other landing sites, that is Mawungwe and Lingira in Bugaya and Busamuzi sub-counties respectively.
“It is good that the fishermen are steering the efforts to protect the breeding sites,” according to Ddungu Wasswa, the LC5 chairman for Buvuma.
Unlike other districts which have plenty of land, Buvuma district is an island, thus is surrounded by water. This partly explains why Buvuma’s population estimated at 100,000 is mostly engaged in fishing.
About 60,000 are fishermen, while the rest indirectly benefit from fishing.
Revenue drops from sh30b to sh5b
Annually, records show that the district contributes about sh5b to the government coffers from fishing, according to Ddungu. In the 1990s when fishermen were catching mature fish, Buvuma would contribute sh30b to the state treasury.
“If we joined hands as district leaders, the Government and the fishermen to fight illegal fishing and secure all the breeding grounds, in future when fishermen go fishing that they will come back with a reasonable catch unlike it is today,” Ddungu said.
Beach Management Units always burn illegal fishing nets whenever they get them. Such nets often undersize, thus trapping immature fish. PHOTO/Henry Nsubuga
BMU revives community spirit
In 2003, the BMU (Beach Management Unit) law was passed providing a stepping stone for Kyaye and his colleagues to help manage the lake and improve the fishermen’s livelihoods.
BMUs are local institutions of fishermen at the landing site, which entails boat owners, crews, fish processors, fish mongers, local gears makers, repairers and fish equipment dealers. However, most of the BMUs in the East African countries sharing the lake encouraged rather than curb illegal fishing.
“We have used the BMU regulations to realise our dreams,” said Kyaye.
He explains that the BMUs allow them to work with the District Fisheries Officers and researchers at the National Fisheries Research Institute to gazette fish breeding grounds where fishing is not allowed for a given period.
Underfunding cripples BMUs
Kyaye cites lack funding among other factors that undermine the operations of BMUs.
“We are not paid and have to fuel our own boats to guard the breeding grounds, without any government support,” said Kyaye.
He also cited the political interference as another threat to the BMUs. “It is common for a few managers in the BMUs, who seem to be motivated by greed, to open up the breeding grounds to fishing before the three months elapse.”
He added: “In some cases we arrest people engaged in illegal activities and Police releases them under unclear circumstances.”
Such actions beg the question are the district authorities aware of the importance of protecting fish breeding grounds?
“I’m aware about Kyaye’s group and their work as a BMU, but they need to write to me so that authorities like the National Fisheries Research Institute undertake research before we gazette the breeding grounds of fish,” said Majidu Nakwaki, the district fisheries officer.
Nakwaki explained that fishermen are knowledgeable about fish breeding grounds and can work with the researchers to gazette these areas.
Experts speak out
Richard Kimbowa, the head of Uganda Coalition for Sustainable Development said BMUs are supposed to offer a lot more services, but they are not equipped to do so.
Although he is concerned that BMUs have been overlooked by the local government setup, Kimbowa says the units are supposed to be more than just for collecting fees from fish traders and enforce the law.
The Fisheries Commissioner, Jackson Wadanya told New Vision in an interview that the EUfunded Lake Victoria Fisheries Organisations (LVFO) to set up the BMUs in the lake region. He also pointed out that BMUs link the fisheries department with the fishermen, who are key in the sustainable management of the lake.
Wadanya explained that BMUs were supposed to create awareness, promote sanitation at the landing sites. They are also supposed to engage in catchment afforestation, dispute resolution, formulation of by-laws, control of water hyacinth and working with the Police to enforce the law.
Also BMUs are supposed to mobilise parents to take their children to school. The lake ecological systems have existed without protected areas.
In the colonial and post-colonial eras, forest reserves and national parks, were created as part of the land use. When Uganda held the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 2007, a fresh water park was proposed in Mukono near Munyonyo and is yet to take off.
Kyaye and colleagues could be making history by being the first grassroot community in Uganda to initiate the protection of a breeding ground. Nakwaki believes that protecting the breeding grounds of fish is likely to be successful since the district and Government will be riding on the aspiration of the people regarding conservation of the lake.
“It is coming at a good time when we want to gazette and protect the breeding grounds for fish,” he said.