Lake Edward at the Crossroads
20 March 2015
Lake Edward, enclosed in two unique national parks, Virunga national Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Queen Elisabeth Park in Uganda, is a beautiful lake that provides a livelihood for many people living around it. But the lake is under severe pressure.
Poor governance, a strong population growth and illegal fishing causes intense degradation of the biodiversity and a threat to the livelihoods of many. What can to be done?
Over the years, the population around Lake Edward has been growing fast. At the moment 200.000 people depend on the lake for a daily meal and an income. In the DRC, Lake Edward has 3 legal landing sites which function as main fishing villages. The population in these legal fisheries increased by 33.7 % in a period of 5 years. In the DRC-side there are also 10 illegal fisheries. The growth of population in these illegal fisheries is unknown but represents one of the major threats to the fragile balance of this crucial ecosystem. For instance, last collected data shows that there are 3.951 fishing boats on the lake, instead of the originally 700 allowed boats. Approximately 50 % of the fishing boats on the lake is operated from illegal villages.
Obviously, when there are more people living around the lake, the demand for fish and more in general, the pressure on natural resources increases.
Research by SOPR, Virunga National Park, IUCN NL and other partners in 2014 shows that the total catch and productivity of the lake hasn’t decreased* but what has increased, is the catch effort per fisherman. There now are more fishermen and less fish caught per fisherman.
One of the main threats of a sound biodiversity in the lake is the fishing on spawning grounds and river mouths. Almost all fishermen on Lake Edward use lines with living baby fish and small fish species on hooks (so called pêche aux hameçons) to fish. Each time the men go out on their canoes, they use 2500 – 3000 fish. The number can even be as high as 5000 baby fish per trip. Thousands of young fishes die. Officially, it is only permitted to fish with 700 hooks per boot, per trip. With many illegal boats on the lake using this method, the fish population is under enormous threat.
Poor governance leading to anarchy
There are several organizations responsible for regulation of the fishing industry. The Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN) is the government’s National Parks Authority with a legal mandate to enforce the conservation laws that are designed to protect Congo’s flora and fauna. The ICCN is also actively involved in the participative demarcation and protection of the spawning grounds, as well as the control of mesh size of the nets. Currently, control in the spawning grounds and river mouths is minimal. Another organization is COPEVI, this cooperative should protect the lake against illegal fishing. Researchers (2014) describe COPEVI as dysfunctional. ‘The situation of near bankruptcy of the cooperative is the basis of anarchy on the lake,’ according to the Quick Scan Illegal Fisheries.
It is a widely shared opinion that the protection of the spawning grounds and the river mouths should form the basis of the protection of Lake Edward and must be an essential component in the fisheries management strategy. This has to be combined with a strict regulation and control of mesh size of the nets. When these two regulations are efficiently enforced, the fishery will probably auto-regulate itself by economic constraints. The argument is that if spawning grounds are protected and minimum mesh size are respected, then the exploitation of the fish stocks could be sustainable.
As mentioned. The total catch of fish has not decreased in Lake Edward, but the catch per fishermen does increase. Population pressure is strive. This is very worrying because what researchers do not know is whether this tendency continues. The big question is: how much fishing can the lake take. In other words, what is the annual sustainable catch in the lake. Once policy makers know that a set of rules can protect the lake. Good governance then is the answer to the protection of the lake.
If not, the lake’s ecosystems collapses, the lake becomes empty and tens of thousands of people lose their income and food security.
* The present estimated total captured fish in Lake Edward is approximately 17.700 tons per year, with +/- 12.500 tons/year for local consumption and 5.200 tons being commercialized. The total catch in the lake represents a total a value between the 30 to 35 million of US Dollars annually.