“Rare, expensive”: Fish eating by Lake Victoria plunges amid climate change
90% of people along the lake’s shores in Tanzania say they ate fish four times per month ten years ago, compared to just 4% today.
Local fish consumption around Lake Victoria in Tanzania has plummeted due to climate change and unregulated fishing, according to a new study. It found that fish stocks in the past decade have decreased dramatically and that prices have skyrocketed, leading residents to turn away from the traditionally important source of food.
In the survey of 110 local fishers, researchers, officials, and civil society groups on the shores of Lake Victoria, just 4% said they consume fish four or more times per month. 60% said they eat fish at most once a month. This contrasts with 2012, when 90% of respondents say they ate fish at least four times per month and just 2% said they had it up to once a month.
“A fish meal has become rare and expensive dish for my family”, said Uhuru Aliwa from Shirati town, Rorya District, echoing a common sentiment.
Indeed, declining consumption matches a sharp rise in costs. According to respondents, fish prices have quadrupled from about TSh2,500/kg in 2012 to about TSh10,000/kg ($4) in 2022. 74% of people said they consider today’s rates to be unaffordable. The average monthly salary in the district is a meagre TSh400,000 ($160).
Lake Victoria is the second largest freshwater lake in the world and provides water, transport, irrigation, and electricity generation for an estimated 40 million people in East Africa. Fish has historically been both an essential source of protein and important commodity in the local economy.
The survey was commissioned last year by the UN Development Program (UNDP) through the Norway-based environmental organisation Grid-Arendal.
Falling fish stocks
In recent years, fish levels in Lake Victoria have fallen significantly. Tausi Abdallah from the Tanzania Fisheries Research Institute (TAFIRI) says that their research suggests fish stocks have dropped 25% in the last decade and that local fishers’ catches have decreased 39%.
These sharp changes are reflected in the testimony of many fishers. “With 20 fishing nets I could catch up to 180 kg of fish per trip in 2012. With 50 nets in 2022, I caught less than 70 kg,” said Otieno Osodo, who fishes at Sota fishing beach, one of fifteen popular beaches in the district surveyed.
One reason for declining fish levels in Lake Victoria is climate change, though its precise contribution to losses are still being investigated. Rising temperatures combined with pollution have reportedly led to decreased oxygen levels in the water and increased acidity. These conditions are unfavourable to organisms including fish while also being conducive to the growth of the invasive water hyacinth. The spread of this plant “disrupts water transportation systems, affects human health, creates flooding hazards, and thwarts aquatic biodiversity”, says James Kikoti, a marine biologist and director of the Lake Victoria Environmental Management Program (LAVEMP).
The effect of these changes, explains TAFIRI senior scientist Gervas Msendo, is that “fish shift to deeper waters far from the reach of artisanal fisher folks”.
A second cause of falling fish stocks is illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing. The techniques involved in this practice are damaging and include the use of dynamite, poison, and prohibited small-sized nets. Some of it is conducted by local fishers, and some by large foreign-registered fishing vessels whose waste further pollutes the lake. Rorya District Fisheries officer, Godfrey Bwathondi, says IUU fishing accounts for 40% of the total fish catch from Tanzania’s side of Lake Victoria, most of which is smuggled across borders.
Camillius Wambura, Tanzania’s Inspector General of Police (IGP), believes illegal fishing is increasing and says the police have stopped 15 large-scale foreign vessels in the past decade. In response to the growing threat, the three East African countries that share the lake – Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda – have formed a joint security force unit that will begin guarding against IUU towards the end of this year. “Plans are underway to train and equip marine police force with modern technologies to track IUU”, adds Wambura.
Beyond combatting illegal fishing, local officials are looking to expand Rorya district’s forest cover, protect the shores of the lake, and promote sustainable agriculture and fishing. With support from the Tanzania’s government’s blue economy funding, the project is also extending technical and financial support to individuals, companies, and organisations to operate fishing blocks in Lake Victoria. These cordoned off areas containing fish cages are allocated by the National Environment Management Council (NEMC) in collaboration with TAFIRI to operators who farm fish under the authorities’ recommended environmental and security standards. Among other things, this requires them to remove water hyacinth, avoid harmful fishing practices, and report suspicious fishing vessels. Bwathondi says 23 blocks have so far been allocated in Rorya District.