Most fishermen toiling in Lake Victoria go for months without fish in their family menu. This is despite the fact that they handle tonnes of fish every day.
Those interviewed around Seme, Kisumu and Nyakach beaches said they have pressing domestic needs, which make them sell off their catch to middlemen lurking on the shores.
“We go into the lake to get fish for sale. We will have nothing to sell if we eat our catch. I’d rather eat ‘sukuma wiki’ than interfere with the stock,” says Jacob Ogolo of Mainuga beach in Kendu Bay.
Most fishermen operating in Lake Victoria are trapped in a cycle of poverty. “The fishermen toil but they quickly sell the little they get because they are in dire need of money to pay fees among other things,” said Dr Collins Maruko, a social scientist who has studied the economics of Lake Victoria.
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He adds: “Fish has become too expensive for fishermen. When they return from the lake, they find middlemen already waiting at the beach. They sell the fish in a hurry at prices dictated by the middleman. It is a case of take-it-or-leave-it.”
Dr Maruko links the predicament of fishermen to a banker who handles millions of shillings in a day yet they could be penniless.
The fishermen blame the Government for failing to protect them from middlemen.
Fishermen and beach management unit officials in Kisumu told The Standard that lack of proper structures to regulate fishing is a blow to the industry.
“Processing factories and other middlemen are exploiting us because we do not have a body that can speak for us. Crops like coffee, tea and sugarcane (all fairly perishable) have boards that regulate their prices. We have none,” says Nelson Ochieng’ who quit fishing because of dwindling profits.
The middlemen, some coming from as far as North Eastern, have literally taken over the fishing business.
“They reap from our sweat. A mature Nile perch for example has a swim bladder (fish maw) that fetches up to Sh10,000. This is sold by the processing plants but none of that is factored,” he said.
The middlemen buy a kilo of Nile perch for as little as Sh150.
Dunga Beach Management Unit Chairman Joel Otieno said dwindling fish stocks, coupled with the rising number of fishermen, had worsened the situation.
The surge in fishermen, he said, was driven by high unemployment rates.
Nyandhiwa Beach in Asembo Bay and Kichinjio Beach in Kisumu, he said, had to close due to lack of fish landings.
The fishermen want the Government to give them loans so that they can buy better fishing equipment.
Mr Otieno said most fishermen use smaller unstable canoes that can barely carry 100kg of fish in a trip.
He said Ugandan fishermen have bigger boats with stronger outboard engines, which make them maximise fishing expeditions.
A quick survey at the beach established that a number of fishermen had turned their boats into passenger boats for ferrying tourists visiting the lake.
Some have ventured into boda boda taxi operations, basketry and masonry. “There were times when boat builders were considered important people. Today, very few people are interested in acquiring new boats,” said Mr Ochieng.
Homa Bay Beach Management Network official Edward Oremo and Kinda Beach Beach Management Unit co-ordinator Bony Sidika said the future looks bleak due to over-fishing, with most fishermen using illegal fishing gear.
“Only a small percentage of fish breeding grounds has been demarcated. Many are taking advantage of this to raid the grounds to catch immature fish,” said Oremo.