Fish Farming on Lake Victoria: a lethal ecological threat

20 Mar 2024

Paul Greenberg’s Medium channel published an article by Edie Mukiibi on the environmental degradation caused by industrial fish in cages in Lake Victoria. It is a denunciation of the destruction of a common resource that has been exploited for decades for the benefit of large companies, and of the harsh conditions of small-scale fishermen.

Paul Greenberg is a US based journalist and the author of Four Fish: the future of the last wild food. To read the original article, click here.

The lives of forty million people depend on fish from the waters of Lake Victoria, the world’s largest tropical and second largest freshwater lake, whose shores are shared by Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. Today, however, the basin is a paradise under threat, from pollution, weeds, overexploitation of its resources, climate change, and an abnormal increase in the number of fish farming cages.

I live in Uganda on my family farm, barely 15 kilometers from the northern shores of Lake Victoria. Until a few years ago, I used to travel down to them on the hot days of January and July. As recently as ten years ago, local communities were still using canoes and nets to fish for tilapia, silver fish, catfish, and the rarer lung fish, all used in the traditional cooking of the region.

There used to be two different classes of fish farming: one consisted of fishers with small boats who fished close to shore, another of small-scale commercial fishers with motorboats, which allowed them to go out several kilometers into the lake. Both methods were sustainable because fishers respected the reproduction cycles of the fish and did not put stocks at risk by overfishing. Going out with friends, I liked breathing in the smell and listening to the sound of the brackish water. Sometimes we would go swimming at Kibanga Landing Site and hear the old stories of this former inland port. My friends and I would watch the fishermen casting their nets close to shore at sunset, and sometimes we would ask them for a ride in their canoes to live the experience ourselves.

Occasionally, I would also exchange a few words with small-scale fishermen and fisherwomen, who cooked us akabeero, a local delicacy made with tilapia and matooke (banana). We would eat it before rowing out with the men in their canoes to see how they cast their nets.

But now this sector, which is vitally important for the food security of local communities, is threatened by the greed of big companies that regard a food resource closely tied to this unique ecosystem as an inexhaustible source of raw material, to be exploited commercially using factory-farming systems.

Unfortunately, the unconscionable exploitation of Lake Victoria has been going on without regard for the ecological balance of the lake for more than half a century, and local fishing communities have been forced to witness what is known as the African perch disaster. Since the 1960s, in fact, when the Nile perch (Lates nicotilus) was artificially introduced to boost the fishing industry, the balance of the lake’s ecosystem has been upset. Smaller fish have been decimated by this voracious predator, which can measure up to two meters and weigh up to two quintals, and the pressure of the fishing industry on the environment has become unbearable, with the number of catches increasing tenfold in the last fifty years to a million tons a year.

The explosion of the lake’s Nile perch population in the 1980s, which coincided with a fivefold increase in the economic value of the fishery and a halving of its 500 or so species of smaller fish (its endemic haplochromine cichlid flock), was monitored closely. The drop in the number of species and loss of functional diversity restructured the lake’s ecology, and by the early 1990s what had once been a diverse fishery relied on only three species: the non-indigenous Nile perch, the non-indigenous Nile tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus), and the diminutive R. argentea. The lucrative business that developed for Nile perch has had diverse impacts itself, and enthusiasm around the lake for the increase in value of the fishery has been tempered by concerns about species loss, increased economic stratification, and the fact that most Nile perch are unaffordable locally, hence exported worldwide. Its white fillets are packaged in Europe and can be found in supermarkets all over the Global North. Moreover, the many tons of perch leaving Africa create an unsustainable food miles budget.

Traditional fishing, which had been making a valuable contribution to the food security of the local population for years, was transformed into industrial export fishing, which has enabled companies—many of them with foreign capital—to enrich themselves without significant spillover effects on the local area, while activities related to the perch trade provide employment for only a very small number of people compared to before. In just a few years, the abandonment of artisanal fishing has dispersed a heritage of culture, technique and knowledge that had taken centuries to form. As the fishermen disappeared, so did the artisans who made and repaired fishing tackle

Ironically, threatened by excessive demand and growing pollution, perch too are also beginning to grow scarce.

More recently another aberration, proposed as a miraculous solution to the need to secure more and more fish for the fishing industry, now risks destroying Lake Victoria’s ecosystem.

Fish farming has been increasing at an incredibly fast rate over the last few years.

Since tilapia feed on a wide range of food, they are a very easy fish to farm. Though many Chinese companies build cages for the purpose, one of the biggest businesses involved is Nairobi-based Victory Farms, whose co-founder is British. A total of 58 individual commercial business operators were identified in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania by a Lattice Aquaculture Trust (LAT) report for FAO. LAT is a non-profit Kenya-based advisory body specialized in the East African Aquaculture sector and a member of the FoodTechAfrica Consortium, which has spearheaded development of the sector over the past eight years in East Africa with a series of different projects. LAT’s advisory team comprises senior researchers and advisors with multi-disciplinary expertise, international profiles and strong relationships with local authorities and corporations.

In 2022 satellite image analysis identified a total of 8,024 cages, of which 6,169 in Kenya, 1,809 in Uganda and 46 in Tanzania.

The once beautiful sight of fishermen casting their nets into the clear waters of Masese near the city of Jinja, Katosi and Kibanga in the Mukono district, and Kigaya, Namusenyi, Bugoba, and many other localities along the shore in Buikwe district, has now been replaced by that of a concentration of cages floating on blue drums, some of them fitted with video cameras to monitor anyone approaching the farms. In some places, armed security guards keep local fishermen away from their former fishing grounds, now designated as cage farms.

Alarm over the consequences of large-scale industrial fish farming is spreading round the world. The rapid expansion and corporate consolidation of the aquaculture sector over the past decades has generated controversy and raised important questions. Fish farming has many negative consequences for the environment and coastal communities: from ecosystem destruction to pressure on wild species, to human rights violations.

Since caged fish injure themselves, catch diseases, and fall victim to parasites more easily, fish farmers have to make use of antibiotics and pesticides, but these contaminate the water. Wastewater, in turn, is overloaded with food residue, antibiotics, and excrement, which create dead zones in the natural environment around the farm sites, and coastal ecosystems are often destroyed to make room for intensive aquaculture. Last but not least, the few local small-scale fishermen left in Uganda are denied access to the lake since it has become increasingly difficult to navigate the coastal waters around cages.

The phenomenon of the abnormal growth of fish farming in Lake Victoria has taken place over the last three years, following a review of the law at national governmental level. To help the sector grow efficiently and sustainably, the European Union (EU) and EAC (East African Community) have developed the “EU-EAC True Fish Farming Story in Lake Victoria Basin (TRUE-FISH or ETF)” project, which has an overall budget of 10.15 million euros. This huge amount of money will contribute to the destruction of Lake Victoria and cause further harm to already impoverished local communities.

This is why we need to raise our voices to prevent the destruction of Nature, of which we are a part. The world’s lakes, like its seas, are a common good and belong to everybody equally. Taking care of our common goods and passing them on to future generations in good health is the greatest task now facing humanity, And it is a task that we have to undertake at all costs, otherwise there will be no future at all.

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