Fishermen from Musoma beach in Budalangi. [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]

The once-dominant fish species in Lake Victoria are on the verge of extinction due to the use of illegal fishing gear.

Nile perch, Tilapia, Catfish, Lungfish and omena are the hardest hit. The fishermen in Budalang’i, Busia County, are afraid of the pace at which certain fish species are disappearing.

Joseph Odongo, the chairman of the Self-Fish Lake Victoria in Busia, a lobby group that supports conservation efforts in the lake, said the use of illegal fishing gear is to blame for the depleted fish stocks.

According to Odongo, the fish started to dwindle over one year ago. “This was wrongly attributed to erratic weather patterns only to be discovered later that illegal fishing methods were to blame.”

He said methods like gill-nets, mono-filaments, use of undersized nets and beach seines are common in the lake due to lack of stringent regulations, and this was endangering the fish.

“The situation is alarming following a sharp decline of certain species of fish at an alarming rate. There are fish species that used to be found in plenty but cannot be traced in the lake,” he said.

Odongo said the fishermen from Kenya and Uganda had resorted to illegal methods of fishing. “We had more than 21 species of fish in the lake, but today, we are remaining with about 10,” said Odongo.

Busia County Agriculture and Fisheries Executive Moses Osiya said the administration of Governor Sospeter Ojamoong was fully aware of the worrying trend in the lake.

“The matter involves both Kenya and Uganda authorities, and it has been there for some time,” Osiya told The Standard. He said the county government is engaging local fishermen and the national government with a view of finding a lasting solution to the problem.

“We are encouraging the fishermen to embrace cage farming as opposed to overlying on the lake. The county government has distributed cages to the fishermen. We are confident the approach will help protect fish in the lake,” said the official.

Dr Osiya argues that a policy framework ought to be developed by Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania to help regulate fishing activities in the lake. 

“The matter is an inter-agency affair. The issue of illegal fishing is under Kenya Coast Guards who are supposed to protect Kenyan fishermen, fishing and to enforce the existing regulations,” said Osiya. 

Fishmonger cleaning omena at Dunga beach, Kisumu County. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

Ochieng’ Mbeu, Chairman of Kenya Fish Marketing Authority, said fisheries is a devolved function. “But the issue of disappearing fish species has not been brought to our attention so that we can help address it,” he said.

It is estimated that Kenya is losing Sh10 billion annually due to Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported (UUI) fishing.

The Ministry has indicated that UUI undermines resource conservation, threatens food security and livelihoods, destabilises vulnerable coastal regions and ecosystems.

According to Odongo, fish stocks have reduced to almost 70 per cent in the lake. “This calls for urgent intervention by the county and national governments to ensure the existing laws and policies are enforced,” he said.

Ordinarily, fishermen would be expected to use legal fishing nets that capture fish measuring between 50cm and 85cm long. Those measuring above 85cm are not harvested because they are considered parent stock.

Fish weighing under a kilogram is considered immature, and the fishermen are not allowed to harvest such. But it appears the regulations have been disregarded.

Odongo said illegal fishing methods commonly used by Ugandan and Kenyan fishermen could soon leave the lake with no fish. “We have raised this matter with relevant authorities, but they have been slow in addressing it.”

One of the illegal methods is Bungu, mainly used by Ugandan fishermen. The method involves the use of undersized nets.