Dr. Kisamba Mugerwa, Minister of Agriculture Animal Industry and Fisheries, on October 29 restored the immature fish law. Under this law, fishermen are not allowed to catch any Nile Perch less than 50 cm long, because these are considered immature.
His decision was in response to the public uproar after Government lifted the ban on immature fish.
Apparently fish exporters had convinced Government that Europeans have an appetite for immature fish. Therefore Uganda would earn more foreign exchange by exporting the young fish.
The exporters also argued that Kenya and Tanzania do not prohibit catching and trading in immature fish. Therefore Uganda, by insisting that immature fish should not be caught, was the loser. In any case, they said, fishermen smuggle immature fish from Uganda to Kenya, where they can market it without being harassed.
In this case, they argued, Uganda was the loser because Ugandan fish was exported through Kenya as Kenyan fish. To them, the ban on catching and dealing in immature fish was simply frustrating their investments as well as national development.
The Government decision to lift the immature fish drew sharp criticisms from fisheries experts, wildlife conservation organisations and Members of Parliament. Critics described the fish processors as people who want to exploit whatever fish is in the lakes, without regard to the future.
For example, Dr. Fred Bugenyi, who lectures on fisheries at the Faculty of Science, Makerere University, said Ugandan lakes could run out of fish due to catching immature fish. He said there is no point in making a lot of money on immature fish, then in future Uganda has no more fish to export.
â€œObviously it is the young fish that grow up and reproduce. When you fish them, you reduce the potential of fish production,â€ he said.
â€œThe ban on immature fish was put in place so that the fish grow and reproduce before they are caught,â€ he added.
Within one week of lifting the ban on immature fish, Bugenyiâ€™s prophecy was beginning to come true. Fishermen descended on the lake with beach seine nets, locally called kokota, that sweep anything they come across, including very young fish, frogs and snakes. Their catches went up but they did not become any richer. Because of increased supply they had to sell fish at reduced prices.
Had this continued, experts say, even the little remaining on the lake would be finished. Over the years the amount of fish on Ugandan lakes has been declining due to over-fishing and using bad fishing methods.
â€œThose days a fisherman would go with 30 nets and catch 500 kg of fish. These days if you go with over 300 nets you would be lucky to catch 100 kg,â€ said a fisheries expert with the National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO).
While the fish populations are declining, the fish are also becoming smaller and smaller. For instance, the average size of Nile Perch on Lake Victoria has dropped from 2 kg in 1989 to 0.5 kg at present, according to a report released by NARO on the impact of globalisation of Ugandan fisheries.
The decline in fish stocks has been blamed on over-fishing, proliferation of fish factories, and use of bad fishing methods that catch even young fish.
Uganda has 15 fish processing plants. In the 2002/3 financial year, they exported fish worth $87.4m. This makes fish the highest earning non-traditional export.
However, fisheries experts fear that the rate at which fish is exported outweighs the speed with which they can reproduce. As a result, the stocks are dwindling.
To satisfy the ever-growing local demand as well as exporters, the number of fishermen in Uganda has gone up. And they are now overwhelming the lakes.
For instance in the 1980s there were 3,000 fishing boats operating on the Ugandan side of Lake Victoria. By the year 2,000 the number of fishing boats had increased five-fold, to 15,000. At the same time the number of nets per boat increased from 20 to 100.
A fisheries researcher with NARO said due to an ever-increasing scarcity of fish as well as skyrocketing prices, the ordinary Ugandan has less fish to eat. The per capita fish consumption of fish in Uganda has dropped from 13kg in the late 1980s to 9.7kg presently.
Ugandaâ€™s immature fish under siege