As the government reports tremendous success in its operation to eradicate illegal fishing methods under the current laws of Uganda, fisher communities cry foul over inability to acquire the recommended gears.
From Dei landing site in Pakwach district to Ntoroko on Lake Albert, communities have the same chorus of crying over their dying traditional source of livelihood and food.
On the way from Dei landing site at the DRC border, Kazi-njema News speaks to a young man identifying himself as Pole Deno.
He is puzzled at Wanseko landing site in Buliisa district some minutes after he survived arrest by soldiers of the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF’s) Fish Protection Unit (FPU) who approached on a speed boat.
Deno says the soldiers have zero tolerance to the argument over a complex transition from the traditional fishing gears to the recommended modern ones due to the financial implication.
“I have nothing to do but to risk my life by drowning in the lake, being arrested or even shot. I cannot afford the recommended gear but I have to eat, dress and live as a dignified human being.”
The quick calculation of the economic implication of the recommended gears vis-à-vis the traditional ones is three times higher.
“One could get Shs1m and be able to start fishing but now you need to have at least Shs15m to start. You need an engine, a big size boat and recommended nets,” says John Maringo, a resident of Dei landing site.
The fishers are troubled to see traditional fishing gears being burnt without replacement or due compensation bearing in mind that the Lake Albert communities have for three years been plagued by closure of some landing sites, flooding of the lake and the effects of the global Covid-19 pandemic.
“I shed tears when impounded fish and fishing gears are burning to ash. Many youths have been rendered jobless,” says Maringo.
Like Ms Florence Kiiza of Kaiso landing site in Hoima district, Maringo says educating his children is now compound.
The Marine Brigade Public Relations Officer (PRO), Lt Emmanuel Mucunguzi, told the press that the destroyed fishing gears worth Shs1b about $269,000.
In an interview with Kazi-njema online radio, Lawrence Alithum, the Dei Sub-county Local Government Chairman in Pakwach district, said indeed the operation has crippled the economic backbone of the Lakers.
In his opinion, the central government could think about providing special grants and loans to the fishers since the transition to the modern fishing gears has appeared to be too complex due to cost implications.
Samson Odwokach, the Pakwach district councillor for Panyimur sub-county, reports that on the northern side of the lake, Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) has also heightened surveillance to stop fishermen from fishing from areas bordering Murchison Falls National Park.
“Traditionally, people would fish for food using small canoes in areas of the Albert Nile but now it is difficult. We appreciate the need for better fishing methods but I think there is a need for leniency to avoid the deadly effects of the transition,’ he says.
This challenge ahead of fishermen on Lake Albert is not different from other Laker communities in Uganda.
James Mwesigwa, the Hoima District Fisheries Officer (DFO), acknowledges the difficulties that fishermen could be going through as they lose illegal gears.
He advises the fishermen to combine financial resources to purchase the recommendable gears and use them to buy more gears until everyone will have theirs.
“I acknowledge that it is hard in the short run but in the long run they will enjoy the fruits of this operation. We are encouraging them to make fisher groups and buy the recommended gears. With recommended gear, you have the capacity to fish a single mature fish costing Shs20,000; meaning you also make more than you could when you are all using illegal fishing gears,” he says.
According to him, the current laws of Uganda among other things require a 12 inch canoe for fishing mainly meant to prevent accidents due to heavy wind and also regulate fishing in shallow waters which are normally fish breeding grounds that need protection for fish multiplication.
A recommendable tilapia for fishing should be mature with at least 11 inches and above while Nile Perch has to be 20 inches and above.
Monofilament nets are illegal along with the fishing nets below 4 inches and those below 7 inches for those targeting the Nile Perch.
Mwesigwa notes an increase in the size of fish, amount of catch and resurfacing of fish species that had started vanishing due to over fishing on Lake Albert before the operation started in 2017.
The only question is who is that one affording the Shs15 to Shs20m needed to do legal fishing?
Solomon Wamara, the chairperson for the fishermen on Lake Albert fears that the majority poor are being kicked out of fishing and the financially well to do from wherever take over.
“The communities have lived there for so long but now they have to beg for food from immigrants that have money,” he says.
Denis Busobozi, a fisherman, credits the operation for saving Lake Albert from fish dealers of Rwanda and Congolese origin who promoted illegal fishing methods since they had the money to acquire every gear needed.
“The worst with the operation is taking away the small boats traditionally used to get fish and daily income giving the excuse that they are easily affected by wind and they are used to fish in breeding areas,” he says.
The Hoima Deputy Resident District Commissioner (RDC), Michael Kyakashari, advises fishermen to consider embracing government programmes like Emyooga and Parish Development Model (PDM) to mobilise funds to acquire the recommendable fishing gears.
Video of Kyakashari below text
Responding to allegations that the UPDF are implementing a discriminatory operation, Lt Emmanuel Mucunguzi, the UPDF Marine Brigade PRO, says they target only illegal fishing gear.
He urges fishermen to desist from wasting money buying illicit gears because the operation is there to eradicate them.
The operation has also been surrounded with allegations of harassment that lead to death of some fishermen and extortion but the implementers deny.
Video of Mucunguzi below text
Pius Wakabi Rujumba, the Member of Parliament for Bugahya County in Hoima district also highlighted the need for special funding for the fisher communities if they are to swiftly recover from the effects of the operation, floods and Covid-19.
Richard Kajura, the Programme Officer at Lake Albert Children and Women Advocacy Organisation (LACWADO), says the operation has put many children at risk of dropping out of school and early marriages.
According to him, urgent affirmative action is needed as long as the operation is continuing without adjustment in design.
(This package has been pieced-up with support from the Global Greengrants Fund (GGF)