Africa, Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines

DEVELOPMENT-UGANDA: Fishing Industry Gets a Facelift

Evelyn Kiapi Matsamura

ENTEBBE, Apr 15 2004 (IPS) - It weighs up to 250 kilogrammes. The Nile Perch, popularly known here as ‘sabulenya’, is one of Uganda’s most consumed fish species after tilapia.

It was introduced to Lake Victoria, the world’s largest inland fresh water, in the 1950s and 1960s. Today the Nile Perch constitutes up to 50 percent of the catch in Uganda, some of which is exported as fillet to Europe, Asia and the United States.

Communities living along the lake and River Nile – a tributary of Lake Victoria – cook the fish in several ways. It is sometimes smoked and prepared with peanut paste, or just boiled and fried to make gravy.

The Nile Perch has become a cheap source of protein, often referred to as ‘aquatic chicken’. Yet statistics show that the majority of Ugandans go hungry.

According to the latest ‘Economic Policy Research Bulletin’ published by the country’s Makerere University, 80 percent of Ugandans suffer from “some form of malnutrition” because most of the fish is sold and not consumed by the needy.

Another survey, released by the Uganda National Bureau of Statistics, says 39 percent of children – less than six years of age – are stunted.

About 90 percent of Uganda’s population depends on agriculture. Fish catch is estimated at only 250,000 metric tonnes annually, something which G.W. Otim-Nape, Executive Director of the National Agricultural Research Organisation, says is not enough for a growing population.

Uganda’s population is growing at 3.4 percent per annum, with 38 percent of the people living below the poverty line, according to the 2002 official statistics. Government is planning to bring that figure down to 10 percent by 2017 through its Poverty Eradication Action Plan (PEAP).

Uganda’s population grew from 16 million in 1991 to 24.7 million in 2002.

“It is expected to increase to 32 million in ten years. The per capita consumption of fish for an average Uganda is estimated at 15 kilogrammes per annum,” Otim-Nape told IPS. “If we go by that figure (32 million people), we will require roughly 470,000 metric tonnes of fish per annum in ten years.”

“It means that the difference (220 metric tonnes) should come from somewhere. Either we import or we produce locally,” he said.

In 1990 Uganda recorded 1.4 million dollars worth of fish exports. That figure rose to 87.5 million dollars in 2002, according to the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development (PEAP) Report released in Mar. 2004.

Due to its culinary qualities, the Nile Perch has become a popular delicacy, with over 1,000 tonnes of fillet flown to Europe alone, according to Uganda Fish Processors and Exporters Association (UFPEA).

Increasing quantities of fillet are also being airlifted to the United States despite the freight cost burden of almost three dollars per kilogramme.

In Oct. 2000 the European Union cleared Uganda after it found that Uganda’s fish meets high international standards in terms of handling, processing and marketing.

Lake Victoria is the only fresh water in which the Nile Perch is found in abundance for commercial use.

However, the Nile Perch species that survives in the wild is carnivorous, feeding only on live fish. Fishermen have had complications breeding it, prompting demands to tame the species, Otim-Nape said.

“When you bring it (Nile Perch) in for aquaculture, it can hardly survive. But our scientists have domesticated it and made it survive in ponds. We have been able to tame it from feeding on live fish to feeding on artificial diet like chicken feeds,” Otim-Nape said.

The other ingredient the fish feeds on is sunflower cake.

Pollution also poses a major problem. The use of cages, which will act as nets while feeding the fish, is important, says Godfrey B. Mbahinzireki, the officer in charge of the Fisheries Resources Research Institute in Kajjansi, south of Kampala.

To improve quantity, Ugandan scientists have adopted a method, which they borrowed from Southeast Asia, to change the sexes of the fish.

“We have been able to develop a technique where we reverse the sexes of the fish through the male hormone testosterone. This is done at an early stage. The significance is that the males, whose sex have been reversed, will not be able to reproduce in ponds and therefore the numbers remain controlled, making feeding easier and quality better,” Otim-Nape said.

“The male fish grows faster as mono-sex,” Mbahinzireki explained as IPS takes a tour of the laboratories.

Some say the hormones used to change the fish sexes could pose health problems. “These fish are healthy and harmless. There are no risks involved as substances used wear out in a few weeks,” Mbahinzireki said.

Much as fish farming is seen as one of the strategies to increase food production, there is still need to protect the stocks that are in the lakes.

Fishermen at Kasenyi, the largest landing site at the shores of Lake Victoria in Entebbe, a town 25 kms south of the capital Kampala, complained to IPS that the fish sizes in the water body are becoming smaller and smaller. They blame this on the feeding habits of the Nile Perch.

“There is no type of fish that the Sabulenya (Nile Perch) does not eat. Often, we trap them with fish stuck in their mouths. They even eat their young ones,” says Bosco Ssebugwawo, a fisherman.

According to Otim-Nape, fishermen also habitually catch immature fish, which depletes the stock.

Uganda’s fishing industry employs 300,000 people with 1.2 million directly dependent on the industry as their main source of income, a PEAP report says.

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