‘Large scale fish deaths on Lake Victoria not linked to poisoning’

12Jan 2021
The Guardian
‘Large scale fish deaths on Lake Victoria not linked to poisoning’

A SUDDEN episode of mass death of fish on Lake Victoria has triggered panic and anxiety in the country, threatening livelihoods, and a multi-million export sector.

By Irene Abalo Otto

For the third consecutive week, residents and fishermen report an unusual phenomenon of dead fish floating on water or being washed ashore.

 Residents of Gerenge Landing Site in Entebbe, Wakiso District, told journalist last week that the most endangered species are Nile Perch and Tilapia. 

“The water changes according to the temperature and algae [level]. The fish dies and floats on top of the water. But this time, the volume of fish dying is too much,” said 38-year-old Florence Mbabazi, a mother of eight.

Our journalists during a visit last Tuesday witnessed a number of residents harvesting the decaying fish and either deep-frying or drying them in the sun before sale.

The reason for the mass deaths of seemingly healthy fish remains unclear, leading to speculation of possible poisoning, limited oxygen or adverse temperatures on Lake Victoria.

“We do not know what is happening. We have taken samples to the laboratory … to analyse and find out what is happening (to the fish in the lake). It could be a natural occurrence, but we also suspect poisoning,” Tom Bukenya, the commissioner for Fisheries in the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries, said.

The impact of the consumption of such fish on human life also remains unknown.

The rising mid-morning sun cast stretched shadows of returning fishermen. The group of fishermen had spent Monday night on the waters, but were not as lucky. After retrieving loads of nets, they counted only seven Nile Perch. A kilogramme of Nile Perch is at UShs10, 000. One of the seven fish was visibly rotten but because it was big, the fishermen sold it at a discounted rate.

At another landing site, about one kilometre away, a middle-aged man, was salting, drying and smoking dead fish. He hung some on his shack house made of polythene and tarpaulins.

Another woman fanned wood fire to smoke fish placed on rusty iron sheets above the logs.

“If you are not buying [fish], then leave us alone,” a resident said as he straddled to join colleagues at a drinking joint in a nearby banana garden.

Fred Lutalo, 54, who has been a fishman for four decades, said the trend of fish dying in the lake is “seasonal”.

“When [the] hot season begins, many (fish) die. This is not the first time it is happening,” he said.

AnosiyataNamudu, a fisher at Kigungu Landing Site in Entebbe, last Tuesday said: “This time even the young fish (fry) are dying. We are wondering what is causing it.”

She added: “As a result, we only remove the maw sometimes and throw away the flesh”.

An average maw costs between $450 to $1,000, depending on its quality and strength of the market internationally. Uganda’s fish is sold in mainly European Union markets including Italy and Germany, according to Fisheries commissioner Tom Bukenya, who disclosed plans to expand the market to Saudi Arabia.

Whereas government reported increase in fish stock since the Uganda People’s Defence Forces began the clampdown on illegal fishing, alongside growing cage fish farming, Bank of Uganda statistics released in September 2020 showed Uganda’s exports had declined by more than 5,000 tonnes. This resulted in Shs124b fish export revenue shortfall.

“I do not think the issue is with the temperatures because the survival rate of the fish in the water cannot be related to the temperature in the water,” George William Omony, a senior meteorologist at the Uganda National Meteorological Authority, said.