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Fisheries Hold The Key To The Future

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Fisheries is an important sector of food production in Uganda since it provides nutritional security, and livelihood support and offers gainful employment to thousands of people around the country. 

Through the years, fish exports have become an important component of Uganda’s forex revenue earnings, thanks to aquaculture, which has in the recent past boosted the dwindling fish stocks in Uganda’s lakes and rivers. 

It is for this reason that Uganda is joining the rest of the world today to celebrate World Fisheries Day, which falls on the 21st day of November every year. 

This day is dedicated to highlighting the critical importance of healthy ocean ecosystems and ensuring sustainable stocks of fisheries in the world. Fishing communities celebrate this day through rallies, workshops, public meetings, cultural dramas, exhibitions, and music shows.  

But despite the dwindling fish stocks which have denied many people their fair share of the highly nutritious food resource which is fish, Ugandans have a reason to celebrate this day. 

Uganda today is already the world’s largest exporter of fresh, chilled, and frozen Nile perch fillets, controlling roughly a third of the global market share. In 2019, it was also the world’s second-largest exporter of fish heads, tails, and maws, trailing only Hong Kong SAR, China, the centre of the global market for such products and a major re- exporter. 

Together these products accounted for nearly 5% of all exports by value from 2015–2019—which does not include informal trade mostly destined for regional markets, some of which is later re-exported. 

Most fish are sold either dried or smoked for the local market or receive simple primary processing (e.g., gutted, filleted) for exports. Secondary processing could produce fish oils, fish soluble, fish silage, and fish meal. These are critical components for animal feed and other manufacturing processes. 

According to a World Bank report titled: “Country Private Sector Diagnostic Survey Uganda,” the overwhelming majority of fish production comes from Lake Victoria (especially exports), where fish are caught from mostly individual artisanal fishermen in small wooden boats and canoes. Fish collectors, traders, and factory agents then play the key role of aggregating and transporting supply. 

The government is eager to promote investment in the fishing industry, with the president promising during his re-election campaign that the government would deliver a new industry master plan, help to secure new markets for fish exports, and increase earnings. 

The government is seeking to further develop fish and fish product value chains by offering private public partnerships (PPPs) and attracting investment into aquaculture parks, which could include new fish processing facilities in Mukono, Jinja, Kamuli, and Serere in the next five years. The government is also pledging to restock endangered species and strengthen the protection and preservation of breeding grounds. 

According to an official from the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries, Government is hoping to facilitate increased investment in commercial cage farming in both marine and freshwater areas. 

“With wild catch output shrinking, Uganda’s lowlands are well suited for fishpond aquaculture, with opportunities to expand into hatcheries and integrated feed mill systems,” said the official on condition of anonymity. 

Untapped potential

The International Trade Committee (ITC’s) Export Potential Map suggests Uganda has over $150m in untapped export potential in five fish products— namely cured fish, fresh cuts, frozen fillets, fresh whole fish, and frozen whole fish. 

Having integrated into global value chains supplying fish to both Europe and Asia, ITC information suggests Uganda has potential to increase fish exports to Hong Kong SAR, China, Germany, Italy, Portugal, and the United States—and even within the wider South African Development Community region to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia. 

Value addition

If fish earns its rightful place in the agricultural value chain, thousands of people’s lives would be boosted. For instance, development of a domestic feed industry, capable of producing quality, affordable inputs would be advantageous to competitiveness. 

“With competitiveness in maize production, this may be viable, and further investigation is warranted. Successful projects though would require significant capital investment, skills, and market knowledge. 

Further opportunities exist around the production of value-added products. Most fish are sold either dried or smoked for the local market or receive simple primary processing (e.g., gutted, filleted) for exports. Secondary processing could produce fish oils, fish soluble, fish silage, and fish meal—critical components for animal feed and other manufacturing processes. 

Aquaculture holds key

With fresh water covering roughly one-fifth of Uganda’s surface area, opportunities to continue to develop sustainable capture fisheries and aquaculture production are evident. 

Unlike its neighbours, some of which share these transboundary water resources, Uganda has the comparative advantage of having an organized set of processors and exporters with proven capability to meet the standards of foreign markets and established global trading networks. 

Aquaculture systems have however been slow to develop in Uganda for a myriad of reasons. These include a long-standing reliance on wild catch, which provides income with limited need for investment or access to finance. 

Aquaculture farming is also a knowledge-intensive activity, with precise design and management of these systems necessary to ensure biosecurity and efficiency. 

“The necessary equipment has not always been available on the market in Uganda, and even today, some products are restricted from manufacture or import because of their potential illegal use in other systems. Furthermore, high-quality feed and fingerlings, the most critical inputs, have been lacking on the market,” said om Musoke, the former chairman of Walimi Fish Cooperative Society. 

He said misuse or mismanagement of antibiotics and other inputs can create disastrous consequences and have led to strict buyer requirements of farmed fish, which also require the necessary national quality assurance systems in place to certify safe and sustainable production—a system still underdeveloped in Uganda. 

These firms have led the professionalization of the value chain, including investment in modern technology and food safety management systems. This stands in sharp contrast to most of the rest of the actors in the value chain.

 Fisheries & Aquaculture law

The 2021 Fisheries and Aquaculture law is set to strengthen regulation and increase deterrent punishments for people convicted of committing offenses related to illegal fishing and mismanagement of water bodies. 

It is set to particularly challenges to private investment in fisheries, which include overfishing and sustainability challenges. 

“Part of the industry’s contraction in 2020 can also be explained by low supply, with fish stocks continuing to deplete at alarming rates in many wild-catch fisheries, causing concern over the sustainability of the industry. Climate change is already affecting Uganda’s freshwater lakes,” said the World Bank.

Changes in weather patterns have also resulted in rising water levels, which some analysis suggests may be deoxygenating the water and contributing to large fish die-offs. Pollution of the water bodies is also increasing, a serious problem for biodiversity health. 

“With populations growing across the region and imports increasing in foreign markets, demand will continue to rise and will place tremendous strain on fish stocks if not sustainably managed.”

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