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April 10, 2024
Environmental Conservation News

Fish farming’s ecological threat on Lake Victoria: A concerning issue

Lake Victoria, the world’s largest tropical and second-largest freshwater lake, with shores spanning Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, sustains the lives of around forty million people. However, the basin now faces multiple threats including pollution, weed infestation, resource overexploitation, climate change, and an alarming proliferation of fish farming cages.

Residing in Uganda near Lake Victoria’s northern shores, I witnessed firsthand the traditional fishing practices that once thrived here. Communities relied on canoes and nets to catch various species like tilapia, silver fish, catfish, and the elusive lungfish, integral to local cuisine.

Previously, there were two forms of fishing: small boat fishers operating near the shore and small-scale commercial fishers using motorboats to venture further into the lake. Both methods were sustainable, respecting fish reproduction cycles and avoiding overfishing. I cherished the serene atmosphere by the water, often swimming at Kibanga Landing Site and listening to tales of its rich history as an inland port. Watching fishermen cast their nets at sunset was a cherished pastime, sometimes joining them for a canoe ride to experience their craft firsthand.

However, this vital sector, crucial for local food security, now faces threats from large corporations viewing the lake’s resources as a limitless commodity for commercial exploitation through factory-style fish farming.

The unscrupulous exploitation of Lake Victoria has spanned over half a century, epitomized by the African perch disaster. Since the 1960s, the introduction of Nile perch disrupted the lake’s ecosystem, decimating smaller fish populations. This predatory species, reaching lengths of two meters and weighing up to two quintals, led to a tenfold increase in fishing yields over the past fifty years, reaching a staggering one million tons annually.

The boom in Nile perch fishing during the 1980s reshaped the lake’s ecology, reducing species diversity and relying heavily on non-native species for economic gains. While the economic value soared, concerns arose over species loss, economic disparity, and unsustainable export practices, contributing to ecological imbalance and exacerbating food miles.

Traditional fishing, once a cornerstone of local livelihoods, has been supplanted by industrialized export fishing, benefiting only a handful of individuals and eroding centuries-old cultural practices and knowledge.

Ironically, excessive demand and pollution are now threatening the Nile perch population as well.

Recently, the proliferation of fish farming poses another grave threat to Lake Victoria’s ecosystem. With tilapia being easy to farm due to their diverse diet, numerous companies, including Nairobi-based Victory Farms, have rapidly expanded cage operations across the lake.

Satellite imagery from 2022 revealed over 8,000 cages in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, replacing traditional fishing scenes with industrial fish farms guarded by security personnel, restricting access to local fishermen.

Global concern over the environmental and social impacts of large-scale aquaculture is growing, with detrimental effects ranging from ecosystem degradation to human rights violations. Cage-raised fish, prone to injuries and diseases, necessitate the use of antibiotics and pesticides, polluting surrounding waters and destroying coastal habitats.

The rapid expansion of fish farming in Lake Victoria over the past three years, facilitated by legislative changes, is further fueled by projects like the EU-EAC True Fish Farming Story in Lake Victoria Basin (TRUE-FISH or ETF), risking irreversible harm to the lake and local communities already grappling with poverty.

Written by Paul Greenberg, New York Times bestselling author of Four Fish as well as The Climate Diet and Goodbye Phone

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