02 Jul 2019

Illegal fishing in Lake Victoria endangers livelihoods and species

Overfishing by organised crime syndicates in Lake Victoria could drive 76% of fish species to extinction.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing is posing a severe threat to the survival of fish species in Lake Victoria. Lake Victoria is the second-largest freshwater body in the world. Some 94% of the lake is shared between Tanzania and Uganda, and the remaining 6% is in Kenya. A IUCN report from 2018 states that some 76% of fish species in the lake currently face extinction. This includes crustaceans like shrimps and crabs, which are important to local livelihoods.

The report identifies biological resource use – primarily overfishing ­– as one of the four key factors driving the decline of these species. The other drivers are pollution, agriculture and invasive species. Illegal fishing gear (including trawl nets), and unorthodox fishing methods, such as poisoning, contribute to the depletion of species. Such methods also fuel hostility among local fishermen, as fish become scarce.

The rapid decline of fish stocks and species is largely fuelled by undeclared and illegal operations. A Kenyan fisheries official, who spoke to ENACT on condition of anonymity, said that the volume of undeclared and illegally caught fish is almost double the declared tonnage. According to the official, most of the undeclared fish is shipped out of the region by large organised crime syndicates.

The networks that drive illegal fishing in Lake Victoria are also involved in wildlife crime

A Kenyan state official who works with a national body that manages inland waterways told ENACT that crime syndicates typically ‘mix legal and illegal fish products’, and ship out such consignments using the three countries’ rivers and lakes.

Corruption is one of the primary reasons IUU fishing thrives in Lake Victoria, and illegally caught fish can be moved. Customs officials are bribed to allow consignments to pass without being inspected. In this way, illicit consignments are transported along licit channels, and it becomes near impossible to identify what had been caught illegally. A tilapia platter served in Angola or South Africa might well have been illegally caught and shipped out of Lake Victoria.

The state official added that other forms of organised crime also occur alongside IUU fishing. The same networks that drive IUU fishing are also involved in wildlife crime, including poaching of species like hippopotamus, pangolins and snakes – especially pythons.

According to the official, law enforcement officers from the three countries are complicit in the ‘pipeline of organised crime in the lake.’ He explained that officers receive bribes of up to US$3 000 per shipment from these transnational crime groups as a ‘protection fee’.

The Lake Victoria fishing industry provides employment for more than 800 000 people

A 2018 research paper published by the International Journal of the Commons also found that ‘corruption fuels illegalities and undermines the legitimacy of fisheries co-management’ in Lake Victoria. The study points out that corruption in managing the lake is systemic, involving stakeholders such as the police and judiciary in all of the three countries (Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania).

The laws of these three countries ban overfishing and unconventional practices such as the use of firearms, explosives, electrical shock devices or poison substances for the purpose of fishing. These methods are frequently used by organised criminal groups. The impact on the environment is severe, as are associated revenue losses. 

The Lake Victoria Fisheries Organization (LVFO) is a specialised institution of the East African Community (EAC). According to the body, the use of illegal fishing equipment has been increasing for over a decade. This includes prohibited nets, small hooks and monofilament nets.

LVFO and member country research institutions jointly release annual figures on fish production from Lake Victoria. In its Fisheries Management Plan for the period 201620, the LVFO notes that the annual haul is around a million tonnes, worth over US$800 million. The industry provides direct employment for more than 800 000 people. Illegal and undeclared fishing puts these livelihoods at risk.

It is clear that a strong, functional and uncorrupted response is crucial in fighting large-scale IUU fishing around Lake Victoria. But up to now, law enforcement has focused on artisanal fishermen. In many instances, individuals from Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya are arrested for fishing outside their country’s territorial waters or using illegal fishing equipment.

A strong and uncorrupted law enforcement response is crucial in fighting illegal fishing around Lake Victoria

For example, in November 2018, Tanzanian authorities arrested seven Kenyan nationals for fishing using illegal gear. In the same period, 16 Tanzanian people were arrested by Kenyan authorities on similar charges. Both Ugandan and Kenyan fishermen have also been arrested by Kenyan and Ugandan police for illegal fishing. Local media reported such arrests on three separate occasions during the first quarter of 2019. The use of illegal fishing gear is certainly part of the problem. But Ugandan fishermen have questioned why the government allows such equipment to be imported in the first place. This implies that corruption is also an enabling factor in this area.

The need for a concerted regional response is clear. Yet, coordination among the three countries’ relevant departments – such as environment, fisheries and trade – has been minimal, as more pressing issues compete for governments’ attention. A 2016 paper by Too Big To Ignore, a research network focusing on the sustainability of small-scale fisheries, found there is also a lack of coordination between different departments at the national levels. This, in turn, affects local-level interventions.

There have been some promising developments. In February 2019, the Tanzanian government instituted mobile courts to preside over certain crimes. These courts have also been used to instantly rule on cases of IUU fishing, to deter corruption and the bribing of government officials. In April, government officials from Kenya and Uganda met to discuss fishing operations, which included prosecuting those involved in fisheries crimes. Given the complexity and widespread nature of the criminal activities in Lake Victoria, a decisive response is needed at national and regional levels.

The EAC is ideally positioned to enhance inter-agency collaboration, for instance between member countries’ respective departments of fisheries and the environment. This would assist in responses to the organised crime syndicates that currently fuel IUU fishing.

A useful initiative would be to streamline and enhance joint patrols with the aim of intercepting organised criminal groups operating around the lake. This may also help in addressing other criminal markets, such as wildlife poaching, which go hand-in-hand in sustaining IUU fishing.

Mohamed Daghar, Researcher, ENACT project, ISS

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