Fishermen seek end to arbitrary arrests on lake by Uganda police

"We are not supposed to go any further on the lake," he says, pointing to some floating greenish plants in the lake.

Balaga says at least 16 of his colleagues detained more than a year ago are still being held by Ugandan authorities across the border. "They were apprehended by Ugandan police, who confiscated their boats and nets and took them away."

He was arrested in April last year while fishing in the lake. "The Ugandan police came where I was and told me that I was trespassing into their waters, which was a capital offence according to them, so I paid USh2 million to buy my freedom," Balaga said.

Some fishermen were forced to sell their livestock in order to pay hefty illegal fines to Ugandan authorities.

"Uganda authorities have warned us not to fish in Kenyan waters, but we don't know where the boundary has been because there are no beacons demarcating the lake," Balaga said.

According to him, fishing equipment such as nets and boats are very expensive, "but the Ugandan authorities usually confiscate them." A single recommended net costs Sh2,000, and a fisherman would need at least 50 of them. "A boat engine costs Sh250,000," explains Balaga.

Currently, fishermen in Budalang'i congregate in a section of the lake where there are no fish.

"Perennial floods have made it difficult for us to rely on farming, so we turned to fishing as a source of income," he said. "Things aren't working; we used to catch more fish in the past, but today you'll be lucky to catch even a small catch," he added.

"We urge the government of Kenya to intervene and have the issue of boundary in the lake resolved once and for all. The state must also protect and empower the fishermen from harassment by Ugandan authorities," says Balaga.

According to the fishermen, local leaders and administrators have been in contact with their Ugandan counterparts about the issue, "but there has never been a lasting solution to the problem."

Coast guards

Balaga says the Coast Guards sent to Budalang'i was supposed to assist them, but "we have not seen any change since they arrived; sometimes, those guards make frequent patrols, but the Ugandan police strike immediately after they leave."

"There's little to celebrate about the new year because we're struggling to provide for our families; schools reopen later this month, but we don't have enough money in our pockets to pay school fees."

Another fisherman, Kenneth Bwire, laments the disappearance of fish in the lake due to poor fishing methods and the use of illegal plastic nets smuggled into the country from China via Uganda.

"Both the county and national governments should work together to find better ways to assist fishermen, such as lending us money through our Beach Management Units.

"Such financial assistance will ensure that fishermen obtain the recommended fishing equipment," Bwire says. Save Fish Lake Victoria chairman Joseph Odongo expressed regret that the government had abandoned local fishermen.

"We had over 21 different fish species in Lake Victoria about 20 years ago, but today we have barely five species; if this trend continues, the lake will have no fish in the near future," Odongo says.

According to him, there are 3,032 fishermen on Lake Victoria right from Kisumu to Budalang'i "unfortunately the fish stocks are reducing at an alarming rate at the expense of the fishing community".

Save Fish Lake Victoria has petitioned Cabinet Secretary for Mining, Blue Economy, and Maritime Affairs Salim Mvurya to resurrect the multi-million shilling moribund factory established in the early 1970s to manufacture genuine fishing gear.

"The factory was established in 1971 but collapsed five years later; it was meant to churn out quality genuine fishing gear, and reviving it will ensure only legal fishing gear is allowed in the lake; additionally, fishermen will have easy access to the fishing gear," Odongo said.

Odongo is concerned that illegal fishing methods and nets used in the Lake by some unscrupulous fishermen from Uganda and Kenya may spell the end of Lake Victoria's fish population.

"The former Fisheries PS focused more on cage fish farming rather than empowering ordinary fishermen; the project has not helped much because it involves fisheries officials. The CS has a chance to revive the factory and push for fishing sector reforms," he said.