Fish – Day 54

Posted on April 28, 2012

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Next week is my last at camp Budongo. I feel quite emotional about it. I love the surroundings, the staff; field assistants, the researchers and Mary’s cooking (chapatis just won’t taste the same elsewhere!). It will be hard to leave dry-eyed even for a cynical old boot like me. Nine weeks have vanished, but I feel like I’ve accomplished what I set out to do and there’s a wonderful sense of achievement and pride that’s tinged with the sadness. Apart from The Northerner there isn’t anything I miss about London at all (Mum and Dad too of course). I’m quite happy here in the forest and I can see why volunteers and researchers who come to Budongo never leave when they say they will.

But for the next three and half weeks fieldwork will be quite different. Using a skill that comes as second nature to me I will try to tease out of local people by Lake Albert the issues surrounding fishing and aim to learn more about the illegal trade of Cordia millenii used to build fishing boats and canoes. Yesterday I carried out the first, of what will eventually tally up to be three interviews, with the fisheries department. Friday is usually the weekly food shopping day in Masindi – the town is an hour away. It’s also where some of the regional governmental offices are based. After a lot of phone-tagging I managed to pin down a woman called Prudence Alithua who is the Senior Fisheries Officer responsible for Masindi district.

I was expecting a large, middle-aged woman but what I actually encountered was a svelte, pretty young woman who oozed charisma. She beamed at me and gestured for me to sit down. Plonking the rucksack on the floor, I reached for my notepad and we began.

High unemployment in Uganda is one factor that is believed to be driving more young people to fishing. No qualifications are needed to become a fisherman apart from a small licence fee for a year either to own a boat or to use someone else’s boat to fish. People in the villages who scrape by on little money will take their children out of school and push them into work at a very early age. The age bracket for those who work in this industry is broad. As long as you can pull a net then you can work – education is not valued according to Prudence – and as long as you’re still able-bodied, few people retire early. She estimates in the district of Butiaba there are around 4,000 active boats. And it’s not just men who fish, women are involved too.

She said, “A few women do fish, but they mainly own nets and then there are the rich ones who own boats. These (boat owners) women hire fishermen to fish for them. They will wait by the shore to receive the catch. Sometimes you can find ten men on one boat. The men are usually paid in fish (for personal consumption and for their families) and the boat owner takes the full catch to sell at market. Then there are other women who are traders, they sell the fish and those who smoke or salt the fish.”

The lake I’m particularly interested in is Lake Albert, it’s thought the demand for Cordia millenii from the Budongo Forest comes from villagers who live alongside it, although Cordia is used to make all vessels that sail on Uganda’s lakes. Lake Albert also shares its waters with neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The border is porous so there’s nothing to stop people freely accessing either side of the lake. Five years ago, according to research by the United Nations, Lake Albert was contributing around 180,000 tonnes of fish to Uganda’s export market. But Prudence says this figure is likely to be much smaller now as over-fishing has become a real issue. Illegal fishing like pit-sawing is being blamed on their neighbours and immigrants. It seems everyone is pointing the finger at Congo. I’m sure Ugandans are not totally blameless.

She told me: “We try to enforce our policy on our side of the lake but the government in Congo is not stable and fishing is not regulated in the same way. There is a perception that there is more fish on the Ugandan side so we get a lot of Congolese fishermen coming over.

“The selling of fish has started to decline and has been for the last 10 years. There is a magnitude of factors: very high fishing effort at the lakes; lots of nets per boat, one boat can have as many as 10 nets; there are too many fishermen and this is overwhelming the resource.

“The way people fish has also changed over the years. They no longer use rudimentary fishing methods but have become modernised. They are also using illegal practises such as the Lampara Method. This is where fishermen use the light from lanterns to attract fish into the nets. The light draws in mixed fish which includes the young of Tilapia and young of Nile Perch. Fishermen are only supposed to fish for mature fish.”

In addition to this, more traders have refrigeration, which means more fresh fish can be stored and sold to the factories in Kampala for both domestic and export markets. On a smaller scale there are also local traders who use ice blocks.

She added: “The slabs of ice are put into wooden crates, boxes or plastic buckets to preserve the fish. The ice has helped fishermen to bring back bigger catches than before. All the fish that is brought to the market is sold in one day. Nothing is left over and it will not go back.”

There are several factories that buy fish in bulk. Apart from national demand which comes from Kampala there is also one big factory sandwiched between the capital and Masindi, in an area called Nakasongola. Here the fish is exported to Europe. So yes we are also partly to blame for the problem. Uganda’s fishing policy is to meet export demand because it’s a good revenue earner and if possible they would like to see this sector expanded. Fish exports are the second largest foreign income driver after coffee – Ka-ching! But poor regulation by the lakes means many boats and nets are not regulated properly, then there’s corruption – surprise, surprise.

Prudence added: “The nets are supposed to have holes that are 4.5 inches; but we are failing to enforce this size. Using nets with holes smaller is not allowed and they should not enter the lakes, but they do, so the young and small fish are being caught too. Some people have been seen to use mosquito nets. We are concerned about overfishing and about the stocks decreasing. At the moment the ministry of fisheries has closed entry for new boats; new traders and new fishing licences.

“We do arrest offenders if we find them, but yes, there nothing to stop people entering the water without our knowledge. Checks are supposed to be made every day but it’s difficult to enforce. Last week one of our ministers found there was corruption among a few law enforcers (people contracted to uphold the fishing policy) and three people were dismissed (sacked) because they had been taking bribes.”

The demand for boats she ­­­believes is not increasing because people can’t legally get a licence at the moment. But the amount of fishing done by those with a licence is still robust which means everyone is coming back with less fish as there’s less stock available.

A decrease in the fish supply may be good news for Cordia tree and the primates of Budongo, but once fish stocks increase again the demand for boats will more than likely go up again – theoretically.

So what’s the answer? They don’t have one. If the fish go extinct (some species already have) from overfishing the plan is to introduce the same species back into the lake buying it in from Asia. Pricey and a length process to get the levels up again. More stringent policing is clearly necessary but whether this will be applied sooner rather than later is doubtful.

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