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Last Updated: Tuesday, 15 March, 2005, 14:50 GMT
The rise and fall of the Nile Perch
By Alexis Masciarelli
BBC News, Kisumu

Karen Onyango
Karen can only afford leftovers
Karen Onyango is waiting by a not very well refrigerated truck near the Kenyan lakeside town of Kisumu for leftover scraps of fish.

Her face is being splashed by bits of head, bones, tails and sometimes a little bit of pink flesh as well.

This morning, she is buying 200 pieces of Nile Perch leftovers to fill her handcart.

All of this comes from one of the three fish processing factories operating in Kisumu.

The introduction of the Nile Perch to Lake Victoria some 50 years ago was controversial and fears that the lake's indigenous species would suffer have been proved right.

It did, however, lead to an economic boom - but over-fishing has since lead to a crash.

Million-dollar industry

Karen along with dozens of other members of her community, dubbed the "fish driers of Obunga", will spend the whole day drying, cutting and frying the skeletons.

Fishermen
The factory fishing agents leave little for ordinary fishermen
She lives in a slum on the edge of the industrial area. At night she will sell them on the road side.

"When you go to the lake, you find that the factories' agents are all already there," says Karen.

"They are grabbing everything, so somebody like me cannot get one single fish."

"The remains are what we can afford, then we sell them fried at a good price. "

The good bits are processed in factories and flown every day to end up mostly in Europe, Asia and Israel. It is an industry worth millions of dollars.

'Feasted'

"The whole of it is for export, we don't sell locally," explains George Otiana, of Fish Processors 2000.

"We established the business because of export. Not for local sells. Otherwise, we could not manage to run a factory like this."

We can compare what happened here to a gold rush
Richard Abila
Researcher
The people living around Lake Victoria have never liked the Nile Perch, introduced here in the late 1950s.

It is too oily or smelly for their taste.

The trouble is that the alternatives have become scarce and expensive.

"The Nile Perch has feasted a lot of the other fishes of Lake Victoria," says researcher Richard Abila, from Kenya Fisheries and Marine Institute.

"Before the 1960s, 70% of the fish in Lake Victoria were Haplochromis, a very small bony fish."

"With the introduction of Nile Perch it has gone down to 1%."

Cheap money

Late afternoon, at Dunga Beach, fishermen are waiting for buyers.

"One weighs 5 kilos, the other 3 kilos," says Bernard Onyango as he looks for buyers for the two Nile Perch he caught in the morning on his pirogue.

"I should sell them for 80 shillings a kilo."

For the two fish, that makes about $10, a small fortune in this region.

But the business is not flourishing as it once did.

In the 1980s it was not unusual to catch Nile Perches weighing up to 50kg.

As the fish multiplied, so did the foreign investors. Prices soared.

There was a real economic boom.

"We can compare what happened here to a gold rush," says researcher Richard Abila.

"Suddenly this lake where nobody had ever seen any commercial value, created an activity worth billions of shillings... The first ones to invest have become rich."

But like any gold rush, it created some tragic side effects. Some of which can still be felt today.

"People got cheap money and they did not plan well with it," remembers fisherman Bernard Onyango.

"That is why most people are still poor around the lake."

"They would spend it on drinking and having a good time in town."

Fish fights

Radio Osienala has been broadcasting for the last four months from Dunga Beach, with phone-in programmes and news about the fishing industry.

Its coordinator Gilbert Ogienda says they try to address serious social issues.

"Some of the women who came to cash in on the fish boom may not have succeeded," he explains.

Celine Akini frying Nile Perch
Fried Nile Perch makes a tasty snack
"They moved to prostitution and that has escalated the prevalence of HIV/Aids in the region."

And that is not all. Because of years of over-fishing, the competition is now fierce on the water.

There are often reports of violence between fishermen across the borders of Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya.

But despite all the negative aspects, researcher Richard Abila is adamant that the introduction of the Nile Perch was a good thing.

"Whereas it has had all these negative consequences on biodiversity, if you look at what it has done in terms of uplifting people's living standard, it is important that it was introduced," he says.

"I even think that if it was to decline, we would need to think about whether we can restock it, again."

It would be a very controversial proposal but it is backed by many people around the lake.





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