Although the cities of Athens and Barcelona are thousands of kilometres from Mwanza city, the impact of their financial dilemma emanating from the Eurozone crisis now gripping some European countries has overtaken the distance between the three cities, adversely affecting the livelihood of thousands of Nile perch fishermen on Lake Victoria - the world’s second largest fresh water lake.
After facing a number of challenges during the past few years with a drastic fall in Nile Perch stocks in the lake due to a number of factors, including overfishing, there were positive signs at the beginning of this year that the stocks were now on the increase, thus raising hopes for thousands of fishermen and fish processors in and around Mwanza.
With the ravages of the Eurozone crisis spreading far and wide, Lake Victoria fishermen’s hopes have again been shuttered as the demand for Nile Perch fillets in European countries has dramatically declined, forcing millions of buyers to opt for cheaper pork and chickens in order to cope with the economic difficulties.
Arko Bhagat, a Nile Perch fillet processor in Mwanza, told the Guardian on Sunday that the market situation was very bad, so bad that “the prices at the local market are expected to fall further.”
“This is not just a case for Tanzania but the whole of East Africa,” Bhagat said in a telephone interview recently.
With the economies of a number of European countries in shambles, millions of fish buyers have turned to cheaper alternatives, especially pork and chicken. “While a kilogramme of Nile Perch fillet in European countries costs euro 10 (Sh 20,000), a kilogramme of pork or chicken costs only euro 3 (Sh 6,000),” Bhagat said.
The Eurozone crisis is an ongoing financial crisis that has rocked the European Union, mainly Spain, Greece, Italy and Portugal, making it difficult or impossible for some countries in the euro area to refinance their government debt without the assistance of third parties.
From late 2009, fears of a sovereign debt crisis developed among investors as a result of the rising private and government debt levels around the world, coupled with a wave of downgrading of government debt in some European states.
Europe is the biggest market for Nile Perch fillets from Lake Victoria, accounting for 80 per cent of the total catches, according to statistics from Lake Victoria fish processors and exporters. Spain, Portugal, Greece and Germany are the biggest consumers of Nile Perch fillets.
The fillets have a very high content of Omega-3. Researchers have found that Omega- 3 fatty acids from seafood may reduce the risk of blood clotting and the levels of cholesterol. Also Omega-3 have positive effects on other disorders such as cancer, arthritis, asthma, and improve brain development and eyes tissues.
But, according to details gathered by The Guardian on Sunday, this week alone there were about 400 tonnes of fresh Nile Perch stranded in Mwanza as fish processors slowed their buying of the fish supplies from artisanal fishermen. “We have lots of fish, but there’s no market.
After suffering for a long time we thought we were seeing light at the end of the tunnel,” Bruno, one of the leading fish suppliers in Mwanza, said this week.
Following the situation, Nile Perch prices at local markets have tumbled by 60 per cent, going as low as Sh2,500/- per kilogramme, down from Sh4,000 a kilogramme.
“If this situation persists the prices will further decline, and this is very bad for us. Sometime ago we were told that it was due to a world economic crisis, then we faced a sharp decline in the fish stocks in the lake.
But this time round the story is that there are no buyers in Europe. We are confused because we don’t know what’s really is happening,” Bruno added.
One fish factory in Mwanza was this week having more than 200 tonnes of fresh fillets in its stores owing to the situation. The sharp decline in the market for Nile perch fillets spells untold suffering and economic doom to an estimated 300,000 people who directly depend on the industry.
Another 3 million people whose livelihood indirectly depends on the industry will also be affected if the EU market remains in limbo.
Between 2008 and 2011, the Nile Perch industry faced a number of challenges both locally and globally. At the local level the perch faced unsustainable fishing, which almost depleted its stocks in the lake.
At the global level the market was adversely affected by the world financial crunch, coupled by stiff competition from farmed tilapia, also known as Bassa and Pangasius, from Vietnam and China.
However, according to a recent study released in April, this year, the Australian barramundi has been recognized as one of the foods likely to become another strong competitor to the Nile Perch market and, crucially, with a better image since its flesh is said to be “extremely low in toxin levels, but full of heart and brain healthy Omega-3s”.
Introduced in Lake Victoria by the British colonial government to increase fish species and attract tourists, the Nile Perch is a large freshwater fish found extensively in the rivers and lakes of East Africa that can weigh up to 200 kilogrammes and grow up to two metres in length.
The fish is a predator; it lives and feeds throughout the water column. Its main advatanges as a food fish are its abundance, ease of catching with a variety of small-scale and industrial techniques, its large size and very palatable bone-free white flesh.
The industry’s annual export revenues rose to Sh 246 billion ($194 million) in 2004, before falling significantly in 2006 due to a sharp drop in its population and the invasion of cheap Bassa fish from Vietnam and China in the European and Middle East markets.