Taking the Bait

Boom and bust at Lake Victoria

01 March 2018
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KAYUMBA JOHN USED TO SIT IN HIS OFFICE by the shore of Lake Victoria, in Kasensero, Uganda, and watch boats arriving at dawn. While the crews onboard sold Nile perch—a freshwater fish found in the Nile river and its tributaries—fishmongers packed them into refrigerators in trucks bound for Kampala.

“When you look in the country, there is no other profitable activity like fishing,” Kayumba, the former chairman of the local beach management unit, told me, with a hint of pride in his voice, as we sat in his office in April 2015. “It is us fishermen who have educated our children in good schools, alongside those politicians and well-off people,” he added. Lake Victoria, the largest body of freshwater in Africa, surrounds Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, and it affects lives and livelihoods thousands of miles beyond the shore. The majority of fish are sold in Europe, making the fishing industry one of few—alongside coffee and tea—with a lucrative export market.

Over the last two decades thousands of migrants across the country abandoned subsistence farming, their traditional occupation, and jumped at the chance to make a quick fortune in the burgeoning fish market. The frenetic growth of the fish market led to overfishing, causing the catch to dwindle. Fishermen had to travel deeper into the lake to locate fish; this intensified the hazards of an already dangerous profession, as boats would often capsize or break apart. Alcoholism and gambling soared in the town, particularly among fishermen, sex workers, truckers and those involved in the unpredictable and risky fishing industry. HIV rates in Kasensero—which recorded the first case of an AIDS epidemic in Uganda in 1982—escalated.

Kayumba supports an extended family with over thirty children, including his own, those of his brother, and orphans he has adopted. He settled in Kasensero after fleeing the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Others from his country made the same journey, but few emerged alive. The Kagera River just to the south of town carried a flood of bodies to the lake that are now buried nearby in a mass grave marked by a memorial.

When Kayumba set up his fishing business, named Besiga Mukama—“those who believe in god”—Kasensero was a small town with thatched huts and little infrastructure. (The town’s name comes from the Luganda word for “penetrate,” a reminder of the first settlers who cut a path through the jungle to reach the beach.) In 1994, Kayumba told me, fishermen could capture dozens of Nile perch within an afternoon, and sell them to nearby villages. The town expanded rapidly, acquiring roads and enough infrastructure to export the catch to supermarkets around the world. Kayumba got over 30 boats, while the town obtained over 400.

By 2015, the larger fish had all but run out: less than 1 percent of the Nile perch in the lake were larger than the 20-inch minimum, suggesting that the fish were too young to reproduce and too small to sell legally. Between 2005—when the catch on the lake peaked—and 2015, the Nile-perch population halved as fishermen employed smaller nets to catch smaller fish. Although prices remained high and there was still money to be made, Kayumba had to reduce his own fleet to under ten boats.

“The lake has been very important to us and we who have benefitted from it have a lot of pain to see that it is being destroyed,” Kayumba told me. “If only I had the power, I would have restored it because it is very important to the country.” When he tried to fight illegal fishing, however, he was physically threatened and taken to court. Most people in Kasensero with whom I interacted with that year predicted that the fish supply would run out completely within three to five years. They explained that they were hustling to make as much money as possible before the end.

But this month, Kayumba told my fixer, Kateregga Baker, about an unexpected turn of events in December 2016: President Yowri Museveni had initiated a drive to imprison those deploying illegal methods, including beach-drifting—a practice where a few small boats together haul nets onto the beach, carrying everything in their way—and the catching of young fish. “Many boats were destroyed, many nets were burnt and night and day patrols and ambushes were put in place,” Kayumba said, adding that the army’s intervention had drastically altered the dynamic in the town.

At the end of last year, reports from around the lake suggested a boom in the Nile perch population, and a national fisheries study claimed that there had been a 30 percent growth in their biomass.

Kayumba, however, is no longer at his desk. He was dismissed from his job during Museveni’s drive. Nowadays, I heard, he is scarcely seen around town.

With additional reporting by Kateregga Baker.

The print version of this article misspelt the fishing company "Besiga Mukama" as "Besiga Muakama." This has been corrected online.The Caravan regrets the error. 

Alec Jacobson is a photographer and writer based in Telluride, Colarado. He has worked around the world as a National Geographic Young Explorer and as the executive director of the Mountain Independent.

Keywords: Africa Uganda environment fishing fish sustainability HIV/AIDS