Fish traders say a kilogramme of Nile Perch swim bladders can fetch up to sh10m. Gerald Tenywa went out to find out more.
trueBy Gerald Tenywa
Joseph Kasagga sells fish, but he is more keen about something else. He has the sharp eye of a hawk and the patience of a lion as he hunts for the fish that will get him at least a kilogramme of the swim bladder.
“It is small compared to the flesh, but it is more expensive,” says Kasagga, a fisherman at Ggaba landing site near Kampala. “What will make or break your day is the swim bladder.”
Locally referred to as ennuni, the swim bladder is the most precious part of the fish.
“If the fish is big enough, it will have a big bladder. But sometimes a 15kg fish can have a bigger swim bladder than that of 30kg,” he says.
Not long ago, the swim bladder was like any other organ in the abdomen. Many people threw it way, while others cooked it in groundnut paste. Today, throwing the swim bladder away or cooking it has been relegated to history.
As boats from different parts of the lake get to the landing sites, the fish dealers remove the swim bladders and keep them separately. The fish fillet is sold separately in the local market.
After extracting the swim bladder, middlemen collect it and sell it to investors from China dealing in export trade. According to Kasagga, they used to sell dry swim bladders, but due to the high demand today, they sell fresh ones.
Cost of swim bladder
A kilogramme (fresh weight) of swim bladder goes for sh700,000. In China, a kilogramme (dry weight) swim bladder goes for $8,000 (about sh10m).
By comparison, Nile Perch goes for sh10,000 per kilogramme at the landing site. This means that a grown up Nile perch could earn more than sh1m.
According to Kasagga, the trade in swim bladders started about a decade ago with a Chinese investor around Nakivubo paying good money for it.
Its value, according to Kasagga, has grown by leaps and bounds and it is now twice the value of fish fillet at the landing sites.
Lake Victoria fish valued
Swim bladders from fish caught in Lake Victoria fetch a higher price than those from lakes Kyoga and Albert, according to Kasagga.
He says Nile Perch from Lake Victoria have larger swim bladders, compared to those from other lakes.
On the day this writer visited Ggaba, a dealer in fish, who disguised fish from Kyoga as that from Victoria, lost money when Kasagga split his fish and discovered it had tiny swim bladders.
“I became suspicious when I saw the colour of the skin of the Nile perch,” says Kasagga, adding that he could tell the origin of the fish by looking at its skin colour.
Other Nile perch products
Dr. John Balirwa, a researcher, says Nile Perch skins are used in the making of handbags and shoes, while the bones are used to make ornaments.
As people make different products out of the Nile Perch, they add value to the perch, hence creating more employment.
Currently, the fish skeletons that used to be a nuisance in the 1980s, are part of the brisk business at landing sites, such as Ggaba, where they are turned into animal feeds. This is mainly exported to the DR Congo, where dealers say it fetches a good price.
Uses of swim bladders
In China, where traditional medicine is advanced, the swim bladder is on high demand in the pharmaceutical industry.
Sources say it has replaced the plastic casing of capsules and that it is also used in the making of bio-degradable stitches for surgery. Other sources say swim bladders are an ingredient in nutritious soups in China.
Origin of the Nile Perch
The Nile perch naturally occurs in Lake Albert and the Albert Nile, according to Dr. John Balirwa, a researcher.
He says the Nile perch is an attractive fish for sport hunting, which pushed colonialists to introduce it into Lake Victoria.
Since the Nile perch is a predator, the colonialists thought it could help feed on the native fish that were considered less valuable in commercial terms, according to Balirwa.
However, before it could be introduced into Lake Victoria, the colonialists undertook experimental studies on it in Lake Kyoga, so that its effects could be understood.
Balirwa says: “As studies were going on in Lake Kyoga, they realised that the fish had already moved into Lake Victoria.”
As colonialists had predicted, Lake Victoria became one of the main sources of filleted Nile perch exported to the European Union.
This has been followed by value-addition to the different products, including the swim bladder and the skin.
But sport fishing, which drove the colonialists into the decision, remains undeveloped on the lake, with most fish being caught for consumption.
Swim bladders, which helped the Nile perch to sneak into Lake Victoria, are helping people to get out of poverty.
The perch has a lot more to offer other than the swim bladder. “We have been sitting on wealth,” says Joseph Kasagga, a trader at Ggaba landing site.
He urges the Government to invest in research on markets to benefit from her natural endowments.
Gold swimming in Lake Victoria