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Lake Victoria fisheries : Heading for Disaster ?

Chandrika SHARMA

01 / 1998

Technology has helped fishers all over the world to increase their catches. However, usually it is the ones who are the first to adopt the technology, who gain the most. The imitators who follow tend to be at a disadvantage. As catches diminish (or incomes reduce as markets get saturated), earnings may not be enough to pay for increased running and maintenance costs of the technology, let alone make up the greater capital required for the

initial investment.

This is evident in the case of Lake Victoria’s fisheries. The introduction of flax and, subsequently, nylon gill nets had a major impact on fish catches in Lake Victoria. Initially, significant surplus catches were made, but soon, as more people invested in the nets, catch rates dropped.

It has been estimated that between the early 1900s and 1953, the total length of gill nets rose from zero to 2,000 km, putting huge pressure on stocks and dramatically reducing catch rates.

Thanks to their lightness and strength that made them easier to handle and use over rocky bottoms, the nylon nets enabled fishers to reach previously inaccessible fishing grounds.

However, it also pushed the fishing pressure beyond the level where stocks could replenish themselves. Catch rates soon became unviable. Thus, tilapia catches declined from rates of 25 fish per net when gill nets were first introduced, to less than one fish per net in the 1960s.

Similarly, over the last 10 years, there have been increasing signs of overfishing and a reduced catch per unit effort in the two main fisheries. In the case of the Nile perch fishery, both average catches and average size of fish have reduced considerably: classic signs of overfishing.

In Lake Victoria, as elsewhere, this process of modernisation has not recognised traditional, community-based regulatory and management systems. This has had several implications for sustainability. Open and unregulated access to resources has resulted in unhealthy competition, and has encouraged the use of non-selective and environmentally destructive fishing gear.

Moreover, fishing communities have been displaced and disadvantaged, as the additional capital and running costs required have encouraged an industrialisation process which has led to fewer work places, centralisation of ownership of fishing assets, and the vertical integration of the fish catching, marketing and processing sectors. Decentralised communities of owner-operators, fish processors and vendors have been replaced by distant, company-owned vessels and factories. With increasing fishing pressure and more competitive markets, the

economic returns to fishing have reduced. The emphasis has shifted to high-value and value-added fish products for distant markets or bulk catches of species of relatively low economic value to be used as animal feed.

The Lake Victoria’s fishery is well on its way to being a market-driven, rather than community-controlled, fishery. With efforts concentrating on the export of the Nile perch and on omena for animal feed, export processing plants and animal feed factories are dominating fishing communities. Less fish is now available for local consumption.

At this stage in its development, technology change in Lake Victoria’s fishery has serious implications for the survival of its fishing communities, for the number of people it can employ, and for the supplies of valuable protein-rich food for local consumption. Fisheries management can not be left to the mechanisms of the market, neither can regulation of technology be left to ineffectual state laws.

`Intermediate technology’ options (between artisanal and capital-intensive fisheries)may offer a `middle road’ and provide for a more equitable development of fisheries. This is why it is important to support initiatives like those of the Kenya-based NGO, OSIENALA, aimed at community participation in management, organisation and empowerment.

Key words

fishing, depletion of fishing resources, appropriate technology, management of natural resources

, Kenya, Lake Victoria


Steps to control the problems facing Lake Victoria need to be taken urgently. If not, the fisheries here are likely to follow the trend set by fisheries in other parts of the world: increasing centralisation and concentration of ownership and management, concentration on high-value fish for export and bulk catches for fishmeal, fewer workplaces, reduced food security, and increased pauperisation in fishing communities. It is imperative to

revive community participation in fishery management and to promote technology options that enable the sustainable management and exploitation of fishery resources, while strengthening local control and ownership.


Articles and files

O'RIORDAN, Brian, Throwing the dice in. Samudra Report, 1997/07, 18

ICSF (International Collective in Support of Fishworkers) - 27 College Road, Chennai 600006, INDIA - Tel. (91) 44-2827 5303 - Fax (91) 44-2825 4457 - India - - icsf (@)

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