Sat, Jun 01, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Traders netting Chinese delicacy leave Nile perch under threat

By Geoffrey Kamadi  /  The Guardian

A thriving trade in fish maw — made from the swim bladders of fish — could lead to the extinction of the Nile perch in east Africa’s Lake Victoria.

Demand for fish maw has spawned such a lucrative business enterprise in the region that it is raising concerns of overfishing.

The high profits involved mean that traders keep a low profile and are secretive about their haul’s eventual destination, said the women who gut the perch to extract the precious maw.

“We don’t know where they take it. They come to collect it and we sell it to them,” said Francisca Odhiambo, a mother of five, who sells fish at Dunga beach on the shores of Lake Victoria.

Fish maw has various uses, including the manufacture of surgical sutures, but it is also a delicacy in China, where it is served in soups or stews in addition to being used as a source of collagen.

It is also used to make water-resistant glue and in the production of isinglass, a refining agent involved in the manufacture of beer and wine.

Ironically, Nile perch is an invasive species. It was introduced to Lake Victoria in 1950 and has been blamed for the disappearance of the native fish and interfering with the lake’s ecosystem, but it is now an important part of the local economy.

“The fisher folk came to realize that the fish maw trade is a real business fetching lots of money in China and Hong Kong, and it’s not just a by-product,” Lake Victoria Beach Management Unit regional chairman Tom Guda said.

In the years between 2000 and 2005, Chinese traders came to Uganda looking to buy maw directly from fishers. The price of Nile perch shot up from US$2 a kilogram to between US$3 and US$4, Guda said.

“That has continued to date so that the Nile perch prices have stabilised because of the fish maw,” he said.

According to a report commissioned by the German development agency GIZ in collaboration with the Lake Victoria Fisheries Organization in August last year, the Chinese agents supplying maw had better opportunities for business growth compared with others in Uganda.

For example, Chinese traders provided working capital to agents supplying maw, a facility that was unavailable to local fish sellers.

There is still little knowledge of this trade in the region and this in itself contributes to unsustainable fishing. For example, no guidelines or policy exist to regulate the fish swim bladder trade in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

This means data on the amount of swim fish bladder being exported to China is hard to come by. The same goes for information about the population of Nile perch caught solely for the purpose of bladder harvesting.

According to a preliminary study by the Kenyan Marine and Fisheries Research Institute conducted in March last year, the bladder comprises an average of 2 percent of processed Nile perch by-product. It is estimated that up to 290 tonnes of the organ is exported from Kenya, but this figure is only a conservative estimate, because “the value chain of fish bladder is poorly understood beyond the lake region,” said Chrispine Nyamweya, the institute’s assistant director of limnology.

The institute said that the price in Kenya ranges between 4,000 Kenyan shillings (US$39.46) for maw weighing between 100g and 200g, and 16,000 Kenyan shillings for a weight of between 601g and 999g.

On the international market, maw fetches between US$450 and US$1,000 per kilogram depending on the market dynamics and quality of product.

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