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SmartFish programmes improve livelihoods in Uganda

21/01/2014 1:00 - 

His fingers tighten around the needle with calculated skill, mending the holes in his fishing net albeit with years of skill. The hand, rising and falling again on the fishing net, stitches it back together to give it a new lease of life in the lake.

His weather beaten black shirt gives away the hours it spends on his back under the sweltering sun as he casts the net far and wide into the deep waters of Lake Victoria hoping for a heavier harvest than the previous day. Some days are good for George Bataala, a 45 year old fisherman on Busuyi Fish Landing Site in Mayuge district. And other days, not only does the net come out empty, it latches in rocks and logs tearing it up. This sets him back some growling hours at the needle and thread in front of his mud and wattle house.

George’s destiny was cast in stone the day he was born. He was to follow in his father’s footsteps, inherit the family boat and paddle the waters looking for the sumptuous delicious protein and vitamins filled fish.

Every morning, George heads out with his colleague into the lake, he must dock deeper and deeper into the water every passing day because the fish stocks are running low in Lake Victoria. Business is bad, supply cannot meet demand.

And yet when George makes a catch, some of his fish spoils along the way back to shore.

You see George does not have a clean container or ice to store and preserve his fish. When he pulls it out of the water, he dumps it in the boat before casting his net again.

The hours spent under the scotching open sun are bad for the fish, which spoils. So by the time he docks, only his last catch is fresh.

“I do not have a container and ice because they are expensive so I just put the fish in the boat when I pull it out of the water,” George says. Sometimes only half of his fish is bought by the wholesale fish mongers who put it in ice and transport it to markets.

“For the bad fish, what I would have sold Shs 10,000 ($5) I sell it Shs 1,000 (less than a dollar) to women here at the landing site. Some of them take the spoilt fish and smoke it and others deep fry it. They say that the smell goes away,” George says. Smoking or deep frying does not make the fish fresh, it only opens up opportunities for sickness.

He realises he is making losses but has not yet realised the importance of ensuring good handling of his catch while still in the lake.

Not only does the sun spoil his catch, George often steps over it as he goes by his business. The boat itself is not the cleanest at the landing site. This unhygienic environment gives germs and enzymes a chance to speed up the process of spoilage.

So when the SmartFish Team stopped by Busuyi Fish landing site to screen the Clean Fish Better Life participatory video to raise awareness on the importance of hygiene and quality in handling of fish in small scale fisheries, George heads out to take part in the fun fare and probably win a t-shirt and other goodies on display. But when the video starts playing, the hundreds of people who have turned up cannot get their eyes off the screen.

“It is like I am seeing my people up there on the screen. Everything they were showing happens here at this landing site,” George says during the screening at 7p.m.

It is a beautiful chilly evening by the lake shores. The full moon makes the night surreal, and even better, nearly everyone is going home with a gift.

The once jubilant dancing crowd falls silent as they watch the fisherman on the screen take fish out of the net into a clean container with ice. George agrees this is good practice.

“Now I know that if I invested some money in this box and ice, I wouldn’t throw away any fish or sell it for less money,” George says.

The women behind him nod in agreement to the recipe of cooking their sardine fish (mukene) with coconut milk, something which they did not know. 

Esther who sells sardines at the landing site says that before today, she could only tell good fish from bad fish by checking the colour of the gills.

“Today I have learnt that you can also tell a good fish from a bad one by looking at the eyes and touching the fish. If it is soft, then it is bad,” Esther says.

The video shows the community that buying fish from a stall filled with flies is no option because not only is this fish bad, it will makes a consumer sick. So not only is good handling, sanitation and hygiene good for George and other fishermen like him, it is good for everyone along the value chain including old people, children and pregnant women.

“This video has taught me a lot and it has opened my eyes. I have learnt the importance of handing fish like a baby, with care, of transporting it very fast back to the shore and to the market so that I do not make losses,” George says as he heads out with his colleague back to the safety of his mud and wattle house that sits by the lake shore.

Sarah Nakaziba the district fisheries officer for Mayuge district says that she will take the video and training material to all landing sites and teach fisheries officers to pass on the message and practises of the campaign to fisher folk. 

SmartFish is a regional fisheries programme funded by the European Union and managed by the Indian Ocean Commission in partnership with FAO .

Submitted by: Davide Signa
Country: Uganda