Havoc as Tanzania’s Fish Exports Plummet

Havoc as Tanzania’s Fish Exports Plummet

Local fishers and factories are at the brink of bankruptcy as illegal fishing prevails in the waters of Lake Victoria, Tanzania

By Sylivester Domasa

This story was produced in partnership with InfoNile, supported by the Pulitzer Center.

Navigating the waters of the mighty Lake Victoria for a catch is becoming a wrestling operation among Tanzanian fishermen. 

Six out of 12 registered fish processing plants are dormant. The six others – Nile Perch,  Vick Fish, TFP, VICTORIA, MZAWA and Mwanza Fish – are also operating at less than 30 percent of their capacity, according to the fishers and the processors association.

Fishermen who used to catch 500 kilograms per day are now struggling to catch five kilograms, most times returning empty-handed. 

The majority of fishermen catch Nile perch, tilapia,  haprochromis (furu) and silver cyprinid (dagaa), but Nile perch leads in exports and revenue. 

Now, their lives and that of locals who depend on fishing activity in Mwanza, a port city on the shore of Lake Victoria in northern Tanzania, have turned into a lament, with poverty looming over them, if not already engulfing their existence.

A bird’s-eye view of Kirumba International Fish Market in Ilemela District Mwanza Region. The large part of fisheries product including Fish Maws are processed here for local and international market.
A bird’s-eye view of Kirumba International Fish Market in Ilemela District Mwanza Region. The large part of fisheries product including Fish Maws are processed here for local and international market.

This gripping tale unfolds in a region where 3.3 percent of the economy depends on fishing – a major decline from 7 percent in 2011. Locals and experts have quickly attributed the new reality to depleting fish stocks in the lake.

“There is no factory in Mwanza that is currently running double shifts. Local factories now get their supplies at least after two or three days each week,” said Tanzania’s Industrial Fishing and Processors Association (TIFPA) Executive Secretary, Onesmo Sulle.

All this thanks to illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing activities that have lowered the average daily catch to less than five kilograms in a span of just 10 years.

A spot survey to these factories between December 2023 and January 2024 noted limited activities with no signs of regular factory operations. Some factories including Vick Fish and Tan Perch were closed, and security personnel declined to give a comment. 

These factories provided direct and indirect jobs to tens of hundreds of people around the Lake.

Main Locations of Nile Perch Fish Factories in Mwanza

The TIFPA Executive Secretary, Onesmo Sulle, could not provide details on the list of factories that have ceased operations, but explained that those in operation are no longer making profit. 

“The factories are operating under very low capacity. They are alive because they must repay their loan and equity,” he said.

In Mwanza and elsewhere around Lake Victoria, the fishing industry re­lies on a special link betwe­en local factories and banks. 

Factories ge­t loans to run their operations, which, in turn, are extended to support local fishermen through provisions of fishing gear, fuel, food, and other essential expenses. The fishermen are, therefore, required to supply fish to the factory equivalent to the value of the financial support. 

This mutually beneficial arrangement hinges on the successful operation of both parties. In fact, if a factory closes down, money given to the­ fishermen goes away, but also when fishers fail to meet the supply target, the factory is at risk of failing to repay its loans, potentially leading to bankruptcy.

Traders at the Kirumba International Fish Market in Ilemela Mwanza arranging and drying fish heads known locally as ‘Mapanki for trade in East and Central African countries

Traders at the Kirumba International Fish Market in Ilemela Mwanza arranging and drying fish heads known locally as ‘Mapanki for trade in East and Central African countries 2
Traders at the Kirumba International Fish Market in Ilemela, Mwanza, arranging and drying fish heads, known locally as ‘Mapanki,’ for trade in East and Central African countries.

Masumbuko Polla, Anold Mashimba, and Magesa Jackson, once self acclaimed top fishermen of Lake Victoria, who each ran a fleet of more than 50 fishing boats and camps in Musoma (in Mara region), Sengerema, Ukerewe, and Magu (both in Mwanza region) and Kalebe in Kagera region, have all declared bankruptcy. There are hundreds of other fishers who have also publicly gone off the fishing radar.

Polla had dedicated 25 years of his life to fishing but said he had to call it quits following Operation Sangara. The Ministry of Fisheries and Livestock Development in Tanzania introduced this initiative in 2017, which significantly improved fish stocks in Lake Victoria by confiscating illegal fishing gear, arresting more than 1,000 individuals, and reducing illegal fishing activities from 60 to 25 percent.

According to the fisherman, the operation destroyed a significant portion of his properties. “The repercussions were profound…” Polla said.

Today, Polla said he was spending at least 40 liters of petrol to catch a mere seven kilograms of fish, sometimes not getting anything. 

“That becomes a more challenging and unsustainable endeavor for me with no hope for revival. I had to make the difficult decision to transition to farming,” he said. 

The prevalence of illegal fishing across the lake has left Polla and many other fishermen disillusioned about the prospects of their return to the lake. 

Mashimba echoed a similar sentiment to Polla, emphasizing the unfavorable cost-benefit ratio in the current fishing landscape. 

The Tanzania National Fisheries Policy of 2015 acknowledged illegal fishing as the second biggest challenge in managing the fisheries sector in the country. Through this policy, the government vowed to establish a monitoring, control and surveillance system to combat illegalities within the sector as well as an authority to deal with conservation and protection of fisheries resources and environment in marine and freshwater areas.

Also, the government promised to collaborate with stakeholders to eliminate illegal and destructive fishing gears and practices. 

This, however, is not the case with Lake Victoria, where fisheries account for more than 60 percent of the country’s total fish catches.

Fishermen here are increasingly deploying beach seines called “kokoro,” monofilament nets, trawlers, and gillnets with less than 17 millimeters mesh size — all being illegal fishing gears, according to Tanzania Fisheries Research Institute (TAFIRI). 

LEGAL ILLEGAL NETS 03 3

The authority to deal with conservation and protection of fisheries resources in freshwater has not been established. Fishermen also say monitoring, control and surveillance in the lake is seasonal, usually during special operations. 

The Minister for Livestock and Fisheries Development, Abdallah Ulega, confirmed that less than 40 percent of the planned 8,400 patrols were conducted during the 2023/24 fiscal year. 

However, he was quick to stress that the ministry plans to deploy 85 drones to patrol the country’s water bodies.

Official government figures by the Ministry of Finance reveal a sharp decline in exports of Nile Perch between 2019 and 2022. 

From about 25,000 tons of Nile Perch valued at USD $128 million exported in 2011, these fish exports doubled in value by 2015, but then decreased due to escalating incidents of illegal fishing that depleted the fish stock. 

Remedial efforts, including Operation Sangara I, II, and III, boosted revenues to Tsh 17.6 billion (USD $6.9 million) by 2019, and the country’s fish economy was at a high.

But from 2019, exports fell steadily. The most recent government survey report indicates that by 2022, revenues from Nile Perch exports had halved to Tsh 8.9 billion (USD $3.5 million).

Such a drop in revenue has also left families and communities that depend on fishing activities paralyzed. 

“There are no fish,” said 65-year-old Paulina Misalaba, who resides in the Kigoto suburb of Sengerema district, around 56 kilometers from Mwanza. 

“All of my entire life I have depended on this lake. Partly fishing and doing related activities. But now there are no fish and people are desperate,” Misalaba said. 

Residents in this fishing community said they used to spend a few hours getting more than enough Tilapia and Nile perch a day. 

But now, they are grappling with uncertainty, unsure whether to attribute the lack of fish to climate change, illegal fishing, government negligence in implementing stringent controls, or the indifference of their colleagues who fail to consider the consequences for tomorrow. 

Alexander Onesmo, a resident of Kirumba, weaving fishing nets at Mwembeni in Mwanza’s Ilemela district in October. The nets locally known as Kokoro were banned due to their use in illegal fishing in Lake Victoria.
Alexander Onesmo, a resident of Kirumba, weaving fishing nets at Mwembeni in Mwanza’s Ilemela district in October. The nets locally known as Kokoro were banned due to their use in illegal fishing in Lake Victoria.

Alexander Onesmo, who has been making illegal fishing nets for the last six years in this area, said the depleting fish stock is a result of their collective actions.

Onesmo said while small-scale fishermen like himself have limited options in the lake, large and medium-scale fishermen exploit every part of the lake.

“The government seems indifferent… I have no idea whether such indifference stems from their deep pockets or their tax payments,” said Onesmo, who was mending his new (illegal) fishing net. “Even when we take these behemoths to the police, the entire trip turns into a maze of uncertainty.”

Onesmo and several other fishermen defend their beach seine nets, which are not permitted, as appropriate.

“Fishing is a hunting game,” Philemon Nsinda, a fisheries biologist and senior researcher at Tanzania Fisheries Research Institute (TAFIRI) in Mwanza, told Daily News/InfoNile. 

The advent of technology from basket traps and fence traps to the use of large trawl nets pulled by motorized boats has allowed fishermen to hunt in any waters. However, the depleting fish stocks have resulted in regular clashes between dagaa (silver cyprinid or the Lake Victoria sardine) fishermen and their counterpart Nile perch fishermen.

Fishermen using illegal beach seines net “kokoro” at Mwembeni landing site in Ilemela District, Mwanza Region recently.
Fishermen using illegal beach seines net “kokoro” at Mwembeni landing site in Ilemela District, Mwanza Region recently.

Nsida blames the Nile perch fishermen for the problem.  

“These (Nile perch)  fishermen are the architects of illegal fishing. They are all involved in illegal fishing,” he claimed. 

He said the fishermen are increasingly using industrial fishing methods, trawling in the very limited lake pulling their mesh to dagaa fishers. 

“Immediately after the nets reach the dagaa fisher, it [the net] is either cut and dumped into the lake or the catch being hauled.” 

Trawling – a fishing method that involves towing a cone-shaped net through the water with a boat, was introduced to the lake in 1998. It is believed that fishermen using such a method helps fishermen have a better chance of increasing their daily catch than those who station their fishing nets. 

Tanzania’s freshwater fishing regulations are silent on the use of this net, which has resulted in increasing disputes among fishermen.

The Lake Victoria silver cyprinid or Rastrineobola argentea, mostly known by locals as dagaa, is a crucial source of nutrition for many low and even middle-income families in Tanzania. The majority of fishermen in Lake Victoria today are involved in dagaa fishing, according to Juvenary Matagiri, the Chief Executive Director of the Fisher’s Union Organization (FUO) in Mwanza.

However, this freshwater sardine is also increasingly being used as a front for legalizing harmful fishing activities. A significant number of Nile perch fishermen are now opting for dagaa fishing with the ulterior motive of targeting Nile perch.

The Tanzanian state has officially sanctioned the use of designated fishing nets for dagaa extraction. While the 10 millimeter net is legal, the five millimeter net used by many fishermen is illegal. 

Today, some Nile perch fishermen are using dagaa nets to catch Nile perch, instead of its legal net, which should have a mesh size exceeding 7 inches (177.8 millimeters). But the smaller nets catch baby Nile perch, which affects the species’ breeding capacity.

How silver cyprinid nets are used to catch immature Nile perch

The most recent Lake Victoria Fisheries Frame Survey, published jointly by the Tanzanian Ministry of Livestock and Fisheries Development and the Lake Victoria Fisheries Organization (LVFO) in April 2023, shows that 98 percent of nets used by registered dagaa fishermen are small seines. 

And almost all of these small seines have mesh sizes of five millimeters or less.

The East African Community (EAC) agreed that the minimum size for a caught Nile perch should be 50 centimeters. But “while many assert their involvement in dagaa fishing, that’s merely a side note. 

They fish as small as less than 20 centimeters Nile perch in the name of fishing dagaa … and those fish are everywhere in the market and food joints,” Matagiri said. 

Fishing dagaa here is an all-time booming business. The thriving dagaa fishing industry on the lake paints a dazzling scene at night. 

Mswahili landing site in Nyamagana district, Mwanza Region
Mswahili landing site in Nyamagana district, Mwanza Region

Flying into Mwanza, the multitude of lights on the water used for fishing operations resembles the shimmering skyline of New York City. From Kemondo in Bukoba to Mwanza through Musoma in the Mara region, the lights illuminate the way- thanks to busy dagaa fishermen. 

From kerosene lanterns and lead-acid batteries to now solar-powered lanterns, fishermen use artificial lighting techniques to attract fish and capture dagaa during nighttime operations. But the use of solar fishing lights and lead-acid batteries has caused confusion between fishermen, with the majority of dagaa fishers currently opting for the latter due to misconceptions and brighter illumination. 

The Tanzania Fisheries and Research Institute has raised environmental concerns over the use of batteries that can potentially cause pollution, adversely affecting fish breeding and the lake’s biomass.

“If swift actions are not put in place urgently, the Nile perch population will perish in the years to come,” Matagiri warned.

Tanzania Fisheries Research Institute TAFIRI officials display a picture of the largest fished Nile Perch in Lake Victoria at the office library in January 2

IN this file photo Tanzania Fisheries Research Institute TAFIRI officials display a picture of the largest fished Nile Perch in Lake Victoria at the office library on January 19 2024
Tanzania Fisheries Research Institute (TAFIRI) officials display a picture of the largest fished Nile Perch in Lake Victoria at the office library in January.

According to TAFIRI, nearly half of the 500 different haplochromis “furu” species in Lake Victoria have disappeared, along with several other fish species such as some varieties of tilapia, partly as a result of the introduction of the predatory Nile perch in the lake during the 1950s-1960s. 

But this institute reveals that the depleting number of Nile perch in the lake today has allowed several other fish species among the groups including tilapia and haplochromis to re-emerge. 

Today, the Nile Perch processing factories that earlier ran two shifts are struggling to get at least five kilos of fish. Although factories are running short of fish stock supplies, the local market sees a sharp supply of fish, mostly undersized fish. 

The largest Nile perch to be fished weighed 133.6 kilograms and had a length of 167 cm nearly two decades ago. Ongoing recent catches are less than 50 kilograms.

Fisheries Ecologist Enock Mlaponi detailed that Nile perch can grow to a length of nearly 200 centimeters, weighing 160 kilos or 360 pounds. The fish lay between 1.5-19 million small eggs, of which only one percent are fertilized and survive. 

The fish can live up to 16 years and can start being harvested at the age of 18 months. 

Compounding stresses such as illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing (IUU), diseases, environmental degradation, climate change and lack of access to feed determine the aftermath of each fish in the lake.

Shrinking Nile Perch in Tanzania

Industry players said that the shrinking size of Nile perch in the lake also results from the growing demand for fish maw (swim bladder) in the Asian markets. 

The officer, who did not want her name to be revealed to protect her safety, said there has been a sharp demand for fish maw especially in India and China, which is pushing fishermen to hunt any size of Nile perch. 

Jesca Adams, an ichthyologist from the University of Dar es Salaam,  warned that harvesting premature Nile Perch diminishes the fish population’s reproductive capacity. 

“It disrupts the age structure and contributes to a decline in overall fish size, leading to a shortage of mature Nile Perch in the ecosystem,” she said.

Fish maw are extracted from the Nile perch. In Mwanza, there are a few individuals involved in processing and exporting fish maw to Asia. These individuals have set points near fishing camps and markets, where smallholder fishermen and fish sellers collect and sell the maw.

According to the Livestock and Fisheries Minister Abdallah Ulega, Tanzania laws and regulations only recognize fish maws as part of the general category of fish products, and legislation remains at large in supporting businessmen to benefit from this new lucrative business.

In Mwanza, a kilo of fish maw is sold at between Tsh.750,000 and 900,000 (around USD $350). A kilo of fish, in comparison, goes for only between Tsh.4,000 and 8,000. 

In China, according to Business Insider, a kilo can fetch between USD $450-1,000. Fish maw is a delicacy in China and is considered a symbol of wealth and prosperity.

While Tanzanian fishermen claim the maw is used as raw materials to produce sutures in China – sterile surgical threads used close incisions from surgery, in China it is often given as gifts at important events, consumed for its collagen components and is also stockpiled as an investment.

The former Ambassador of Tanzania to China, Mbelwa Kairuki, said in March last year that Tanzania was in discussion with Alibaba– a Chinese platform for global wholesale trade, to facilitate fish maw traders in Tanzania to get direct access to the Chinese market. 

Nile perch maw is a highly valued fish product in the international market. Fish maw exports in the year 2019 contributed USD $77.9 million in Tanzania; USD $76.3 million  in Uganda and USD $3.7 million in Kenya. The three countries exported an estimated total of 1,640.19 metric tons of Nile perch maws in 2019. 

With this growing demand, fishermen in Tanzania are aggressively on the hunt for the Nile perch’s swim bladder. 

Renatus Elius, operations manager at Nile Perch Processing Factory in Mwanza, one of the factories that has been hit hard by illegal fishing activities, said the government needs to up its games on monitoring, control and surveillance. 

He suggested the need to adopt the Ugandan surveillance style by deploying the army into the lake. 

“Unfortunately, it seems like a daunting task to combat the rapid resurgence of illegal fishing in our waters. I strongly urge our government to follow in the footsteps of Uganda and take decisive action,” he said, adding: “It’s disheartening … I have no doubt that if the military were to take control, order would be swiftly restored in the fishing sector. But for now, we are simply struggling.”

From 2014 to 2022, the High Court Mwanza Registry prosecuted a steady stream of cases involving illegal fishing in various districts, including Mwanza, Nyamagana, Magu, Sengerema, Misungwi, Chato, and Geita. Geita consistently recorded the most cases.

Despite the persistence of illegal fishing, figures show that concern over the problem was at its peak in 2014-2015, with a total of 205 and 211 court cases being filed. This number mainly decreased from 2016-2021, though it rose slightly again in 2022 to 145 cases.

The East African Community’s (EAC) fisheries watchdog, the Lake Victoria Fisheries Organization (LVFO), acknowledges that management measures it recommended – such as limiting fishing capacity and closing the fishing season for at least two calendar months each year- have not been adopted. 

This strategy was agreed at the regional level (Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda) in 2021 to reduce overall fishing effort and protect spawning or pre-spawning fish.

A customer hand-picking undersize Nile Perch at Mwembeni landing site in Ilemela District, Mwanza Region.
A customer hand-picking undersize Nile Perch at Mwembeni landing site in Ilemela District, Mwanza Region.

The Director of Fisheries Service at the Ministry of Livestock and Fisheries Development, Mohamed Sheikh, acknowledged the concerning decline in fish stocks on Lake Victoria. 

According to the latest survey conducted by the government in 2023, there was a significant 33 percent reduction in the Nile perch population since 2014.

Sheikh was appointed in November last year following the Minister’s decision to fire his predecessor Stephen Lukanga over underperformance and failure to implement comprehensive systems to end illegal fishing.

Sheikh emphasized that safeguarding fish resources is a collective responsibility extending beyond the Ministry. He said the public was becoming more aware of the detrimental effects of illegal fishing. 

“The ministry is actively devising solutions to address this issue comprehensively, aiming for substantial improvements in the sector… this will take probably six months,” he said.

Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan listens intently as Minister of Livestock and Fisheries, Abdallah Ulega, details the diverse fish species in Lake Victoria, following the introduction of modern boats and fish breeding cages in Mwanza
Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan listens intently as Minister of Livestock and Fisheries, Abdallah Ulega, details the diverse fish species in Lake Victoria, following the introduction of modern boats and fish breeding cages in Mwanza

To tackle the challenges, the ministry has engaged executive directors of districts around Lake Victoria to foster collaborative efforts. Plans are underway to establish 16 monitoring and reporting centers to curb illegal fishing activities, according to Sheikh.

The ministry has also earmarked approximately Tsh. 1 billion (around USD $400,000) to protect vulnerable areas, crucial for maintaining a sustainable fish stock. 

“There is so much we want to do to ensure the sector restores its lost glory,” Sheikh said, acknowledging the need to review the fishing regulations to battle illegal fishing in both the sea and freshwaters.

The government said it has had difficulty safeguarding the lake, particularly using expensive speed boats, and plans to adopt the use  of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) drones to enhance surveillance. 

It is also in discussion with the Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science and Technology to develop advanced technology to code and monitor all fishing activities in the lake. This includes installing chips on registered boats to track and monitor their movements, ultimately reinforcing effective conservation measures.

“We are undertaking a number of interventions, but now we aim to raise awareness, particularly by involving other stakeholders like the Local governments (PO – RALG), to recognize that illegal fishing will deprive them of revenue. 

“Fighting illegal fishing alone is not enough; our goal is to protect fish breeding grounds and this will greatly benefit us,” he said, emphasizing that the government will revise fishing regulations as soon as possible.

Graphics by Jonathan Kabugo; data visualizations by Sylivester Domasa in collaboration with InfoNile.

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