Shama fishermen

A soft breeze wafted from Lake Victoria at Marenga Beach in Busia, western Kenya, creating a cool environment for those doing business on the shores.

The lake’s blue waters stretched as far as the eyes could see and from a distant, one could see some three wooden boats inside the water facility that serves Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya.

Dozens of other boats belonging to various fishermen were packed on the shores of the lake, some having not ventured inside the lake for weeks.

Initially, dozens of boats would venture into the lake, including during the day, in search of fish, which was in plenty. But things have changed for the worse over time, due to increased pollution of the lake.

Business has, therefore, dwindled at the beach with fish remaining a scarce commodity for both the fishers and traders.

The result is that dozens of fishermen and traders who relied on the trade that in the past boomed have had to look for alternative economic activities.

Robert Mambo, who used to be a fisherman, said in a recent interview, “Unless you venture deeper into the lake, you cannot catch any fish even 5 km from the shores,” he added.

Mambo turned to motorbike taxi business for a living after fishing became unsustainable. “Before I gave up, sometimes we would go into the lake and come back with little fish that was not worth the effort,” he said.

This was despite risking arrest by going further into Ugandan waters, which is an illegal activity. “If the water was not polluted, we would be fishing as usual and making a good income. Fishing was the main activity here but that is no longer the case,” he said.

Most of the rivers in western Kenya empty their water into Lake Victoria, with the bulk of the pollution occurring upstream. The rivers carry all manner of debris and effluents from factories, farms and homes into the lake.

The fishermen are paying the price of years of uncontrolled pollution, coupled with overfishing. “If you want the fish, you must go to the Ugandan side to fish but if you do that, you will be arrested by the country’s police officers. It is not worth the risk,” said Vincent Orido, a one-time fisherman who has now turned to masonry.

Most of the fish sold at the beach are now bought from Uganda, with prices soaring. A kilo goes at between 300 shillings (about 3 U.S. dollars) and 4 dollars depending on supply, up from an average of 1.2 dollars. “Most of the boats you see in the waters are now offering transport services. They ferry fish from Uganda for sale in Kenya,” said Orido.

The increased pollution has not only led to low fish stocks in the lake but also fanned growth of noxious weeds like water hyacinth, which has colonized parts of Lake Victoria. The weed has further exacerbated the plight of fishers by chocking fish stocks.

Ernest Manuyo, a business lecturer at Pioneer Institute in Nairobi noted that Kenya currently relies on fish imports as production from both the lake and fishponds dwindle, adding that the country must move to fishponds to boost production.

To survive the changing times, Kenyan fishermen have turned to cage fishing, where fish is domesticated inside the lake in cages. High costs of setting up the facilities, has however limited the spread of the practice. Enditem

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