31 Jan 2022

Maritime / Tipping the scales of illicit fishing in Lake Kivu

Working together is critical for the DRC and Rwanda to stop the lake’s poor fish stocks from disappearing completely.

In 2018, over 400 cases of illegal fishing involving 163 poachers were recorded on Lake Kivu. Between May and July 2020, Rwanda Police Marine Unit operations on Lake Kivu seized 27 substandard and illicit rolls of nets and arrested 10 poachers for illegal fishing on the lake. These incidents show an increase in crimes in the Great Lakes Region, perpetrated by an established transnational syndicate that will only be stopped through strengthened domestic and coordinated regional responses.

Lake Kivu is situated between the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Rwanda and flows into Lake Tanganyika via the Ruzizi River. Of a total area of about 2 370 km2, 58% of its waters lie within DRC borders. The lake has traditionally been regarded as a species-poor body of inland water, with only 29 known fish species. Illegal fishing puts these at risk of extinction and threatens biodiversity. The Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, to which Rwanda and the DRC are parties, says the detrimental effects of illicit fishing on an ecosystem can result in the excessive mortality of various species. They can also lead to changes in species’ assemblages and the undue removal of herbivores that lead to habitat modification.

Furthermore, fish production in Lake Kivu has plunged by 28% over the past two years, due to illegal fishing practices characterised by the use of destructive equipment. The Department of Animal Resources Research and Technology Transfer at the Rwanda Agriculture and Animal Resources Development Board notes that fish production in Rwanda’s frontiers of the Kivu Lake dropped from 24 199 tonnes in 2017 to 16 194 tonnes in 2020.

Illegal fishermen undermine the licit fishing economy by trading fish in underground markets at ‘giveaway prices’

Fishermen belonging to a cooperative told ENACT that unregistered fishermen operate on the water with outlawed fishing gear. They catch juvenile fish, which contributes to the depletion of some species in the lake. They also undermine the licit fishing economy by trading the fish in underground markets at ‘giveaway prices.’ On Rwanda’s coast, children influenced by the fish poachers are becoming involved in illegal fishing.

A plan by the Rwandan government to increase sardine production fourfold in their Kivu Lake waters could be subverted by fish poachers, who threaten this target by constantly defying suspension measures. In the DRC, the criminal economy of illicit fishing on Lake Kivu benefits various actors, including rebel forces such as the Congrès national pour la défense du peuple. This armed militia operating in the Kivu Province often hijacks civilian canoes for fishing purposes and trades their catches to finance their terror activities.

Along the Congolese shores of Lake Kivu, monitoring and compliance measures for fishing are sporadic at best. Capabilities for aerial surveillance on the DRC side of the lake are lacking, while facilities for lake-based patrols are inadequate. The porous land borders around the lake – particularly along the Congolese coast, which includes vast ungoverned spaces – also provide ideal geography for undetected activities such as illicit fishing.

The spate of illicit fishing on Lake Kivu shows that legislation in Rwanda alone isn’t enough to address this problem

In Rwanda, extant legislation that regulates the organisation and management of aquaculture and fishing in the country provides that the right to fishing in public waters is granted only by a competent authority, which issues the fishing license. So anyone engaging in fishing activities without authorisation is liable for a fine ranging from US$50 to US$200 (Rwf50 000 to Rwf200 000), imprisonment of three to six months (or one of these penalties) and dispossession of the equipment used.

However, the spate of illicit fishing on Lake Kivu shows that legislation in Rwanda alone isn’t enough to address this problem. Bilateral collaboration between Rwanda and the DRC is pivotal to halt the potential disappearance of the fish stocks in the lake. Both countries’ governments may therefore need to rethink current bilateral arrangements to deal with this growing crime. The major weakness of the independent efforts and enforcement operations on the lake is that the surveillance exercises lack bilateral coordination, with each country operating separately from the other. Undoubtedly this allows illicit fishing to thrive while fishers from one country with illegal gear cross over to the other to escape law enforcement.

Recently Rwanda and the DRC signed four key bilateral agreements to further enhance trade and diplomatic ties. These include a bilateral investment treaty, a double taxation avoidance agreement, and a memorandum of understanding on a mining concession. A more pivotal agreement signed between the two countries on 3 May 2020 aims to control the exploitation of methane gas from Lake Kivu to produce electricity and to protect the biodiversity of the water body. Despite these many other bilateral agreements and the significance of Lake Kivu as the largest local fish source in Rwanda and a major resource for the DRC, the countries are yet to forge a security partnership that would help stem the tide of illicit fishing on the lake.

Over 400 cases of illegal fishing were recorded on Lake Kivu in six months, involving 163 poachers, in 2018

Rwanda and the DRC would be better off using their renewed bilateral engagement to foster a diplomatic and security partnership with a view to safeguarding Lake Kivu against illicit fishing. This may start with developing and implementing a bilateral fishery protocol. Among others, this would foster operations guided by the Standard Operating Procedures for joint patrols by the security forces of both countries on Lake Kivu.‪ These procedures should also stipulate training methodology, intelligence sharing, areas of responsibility and criminal justice processes on arrest, detention and prosecution of illegal fishermen on Lake Kivu.

Effective implementation of these Standard Operating Procedures would also require conscious domestication of guidelines in the law enforcement doctrines and practices of the Congolese Navy and Marine Police Unit of DRC and Rwanda respectively. This knowledge would then become part of the daily surveillance activities of security forces across Lake Kivu. Such a concerted set of efforts could begin turning the tide against fish poachers.

Oluwole Ojewale, Regional Organised Crime Observatory Coordinator – Central Africa


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