Give us a synopsis of the current performance of the fish industry.
The sector has not been doing very well as it used to in the last decade or so. We have seen a decline in exports both in terms of value and volumes. We have also seen a decline in the biomass of the Nile perch in Lake Victoria. This has been mainly because of illegal fishing practices that have continued to take place in the lakes.
UFPEA is at the tail end of the value chain in this industry. We have suppliers who get the product from the fishermen who get fish from the lake which is depleted. As a result, we have seen many members close shop. We used to have 21 factories but right now, only eight factories are operating. Even the remaining factories are struggling to stay in business currently operating at 20 to 30 per cent below capacity because there is no fish!
When you look at the exports statistics, our climax was in 2005 when the sector was doing very well. All the factories were working and we had about 36,000 tonnes worth $143 million (Shs486 billion). By 2014, the volumes had declined to 14,000 metric tonnes and so was the value which was worth $88 million (Shs299 billion). We have not yet received the 2015 figures but there could be a slight or no change in performance.
The decline in performance of this once vibrant sector has been on for a decade. As stakeholders, what have you done to revert the trend?
We have been advocating for the recovery of the fish stocks. We have formed a private sector dialogue at the regional level called the East African Industrial Fishing and Exporters Association; we meet annually to discuss these challenges as a bloc and countries sharing Lake Victoria water resource.
In 2007, we agreed to do something about this problem of immature fish. I have to admit all the stakeholders were involved in these illegalities. When we met in 2007, we decided to create a system called safe monitoring and control system to monitor and check ourselves. This system requires that fish which is below 50 centimetres is rejected by factories and returned to the suppliers.
We also engaged a team of inspectors who do random visits to all the factories every month be it night or day and take samples to check the size of the fish found at the respective factories. Once they find the fish is below the agreed measurement, then that factory gets a penalty. The penalties start from a warning, closure of the factory for one week; if the same act is repeated within three months and found guilty they will be closed for a month. We do this with authorities like the department of fisheries to close these factories which are not complying with the regulations.
In the first three years, many factories tasted that penalty because they were not complying. However, for the last three years, we no longer see non-compliance because all the operating companies respect these requirements.
What impact have these measures had on the restocking of biomass and water resource?
Although the fish has not fully recovered, the biomass has sort of stabilised and we have not seen further depletion. Had it not been for this self-regulation as stakeholders, the water bodies would be fully depleted by now! One of the issues the sector has been experiencing is that as the industry is regulating itself, the rejected fish finds its way in the local market and neighbouring countries especially DR Congo. This is not good at all because if this continues, it will affect the biomass. If this immature fish was left to grow, it would earn the country a lot of the money.
To what extend has smuggling affected exports revenue?
The immature fish is smuggled out of the country and it’s unlikely that this money is recorded on to revenues collected. We think if Ugandans could be patient for a little more months and give chance for the fish to mature, the country would earn more revenues.
Informal regional cross-border trade in fish was valued at $33.1 million (Shs112 billion) in 2013 with 21,000 tonnes. The bulk of this is immature fish below the legal size of 50cm. The economic loss of such trade is that if the 21,000 tonnes of dried immature fish (makayabu) was left in the lake to grow for eight months, it would multiply into total weight of 290,000 tonnes and if processed for export, it would fetch about $1.89 billon (Shs6.1 trillion).
According to Ufpea, is the situation so bad that it cannot be reversed?
As bad as the situation is something has to be done. This year, all stakeholders have been meeting with relevant authorities to agree on doing enforcement together.
Already, a national task force has been established to handle this and once money is released this financial year, these illegalities will be put out. The stakeholders involved are the department of fisheries, Ufpea, Uganda Revenue Authority, Police, District Fisheries Officers and Beach Management Officers. These enforcements will be different from the previous one because we shall ensure that the money released goes to the right purpose and reports and accountability will be made.
We as the private sector are coming in because we no longer want to rely on government doing enforcement alone. We have had some triumph in this like last year in a programme supported by Smart Fish, an–EU funded programme, we had good results. However, because there is no consistency in these enforcements that is why people keep coming back to do these illegalities.
But if government allocates money purposely for enforcement, we believe results will be seen. We, as Ufpea, hope the money we pay as a levy on the byproducts from the different fish will be ring-fenced so that it is ploughed back to rescue the industry. We are also expecting to get sponsorship from the German Agency for International Cooperation which will assist us to put things in order.
Is there a threat to Uganda’s fish exports going by Brexit in the European Union?
This is not going to be a threat to our fish exports because with EU, we are not only looking at Britain. Most of our fish exports have been going to mainland EU to countries such as Belgium, Netherland, Spain. UK and other members still need fish. But we have other markets including United Arab Emirates, Singapore, Malaysia, China, Japan, USA, Comesa and EAC.
Many people have gone into Aqua culture. What impact have they had on the exports?
Many people are involved in fish farming and some of them have gone into cage farming. Because of this, we are seeing an increase in the number of cages into Lake Victoria. However, the fish which is farmed is only tilapia and catfish. Nile Perch which consists of 99 per cent of our exports volumes does not grow well in cages. It is a free-range fish. The other farmed fish is for the regional market and we think if many people go into fish farming, the Nile Perch which would have been consumed at the local and regional market is saved for the international market and will increase in population in the lakes. We think Aqua culture still needs a lot of support from government especially when it comes to feeds for the fish.