Fishmongers at various landing sites on Lake Victoria, Lake Kyoga and Lake Albert can breathe a sigh of relief after government lifted a four-year ban on fish smoking.
However, the fishmongers will operate under new strict guidelines issued by Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries.
Under the new guidelines, dealers in smoked fish are required to get licences from the district fisheries department, and fish smoking activities have to be carried out in open place which are gazetted and regularly inspected by the authorities to ensure only recommended fish is smoked.
The recommended size of fish for smoking is 20 inch and above and class one reject.
Smoking of fish was outlawed in 2017 by the Fisheries Protection Unit (FPU), under the marine section of the Uganda Peoples Defence Force (UPDF) following reports that many fishmongers were smoking immature fish.
Fish smoking is mainly done by women since many of them can’t engage in fishing. However, the ban rendered many women at landing sites jobless with some resorting to prostitution for survival.
According, Mr Vincent Ssempijja, the minister of Agriculture, all places where fish smoking takes place must also meet the minimum hygiene standards.
“Sanitation is a major factor in everything.We don’t expect places without minimum hygiene standards to operate, how can a place where fish is being handled lack a pit latrine? We expect all our people in the fish value chain to work together to enforce these standards,” the minister said during an interview last week.
Mr Fred Kisakye, a fisherman at Kasensero Landing Site, said the 20-inch fish government recommends for smoking fetches more money when it is fresh. “We welcome the lifting of the ban, but we are worried that we will incur losses if we only consider fish of 20 inches and above,” he said.
Mr Baguma said they are going to reorganise all people dealing in smoked fish before allowing them to resume operations. “They [dealers in smoked fish] have to operate in gazetted areas, which we can easily monitor, not in forests; we will also guide them on the right firewood to use because some tree species produces dangerous smoke,” he said.
“Our target is to make this business well organised than ever before,” Mr Baguma added.
Mr Alex Ssebunya, a fisherman at Mwena Landing site in Kalangala District, said whereas lifting the ban is welcome, it has come at a time when the fish catch is at its lowest.
“The recommended size of fish (20 inches] can’t be smoked, it is more profitable when iced than when it’s smoked, we pray that government allows us to smoke even fish of between 15 and 18 inches,” Mr Ssebunya said.
What fishermen say
Mr Godfrey Ssenyonga Kambugu, the chairperson of the Association of Fishers and Lake Users of Uganda (AFALU), said lifting the ban on smoking fish also calls for strengthening FPU operations on the lake. “When soldiers were removed from some parts of Lake Victoria, it gave a leeway to unscrupulous people to engage in illegal fishing and they depleted the lake; as we talk, there is no fish to smoke,” he said.
Mr Moses Ssemambo, the Masaka District fisheries officer, said lifting the ban on smoking fish may exacerbate the problem of illegal fishing, which they have tried to eliminate.
“It’s hard to fully enforce the set guidelines and some unscrupulous fish-men are going to use this [smoking of fish] as excuse to deal in immature fish,” he said.
Ms Hellen Adoa, the State Minister for Fisheries, said government decision to lift the ban was informed by the big number of families that were left jobless yet they were depriving their livelihoods from smoking fish.
“Single mothers and other small scale dealers no longer have what to do to support their families and this has prompted us to lift the ban, but we have issued some guidelines they are supposed to follow,” she said.
Over the last 15 years, the fisheries sector had played an important social and economic role in Uganda as the second largest foreign exchange earner.
However, about five years ago, the industry faced a sharp fall, resulting from depletion as a result of bad fishing.
Therefore, in trying to save the resource and the industry, government intervened with stringent measures that include deploying of the army to eliminate illegal fishing methods.
This, coupled with a number of interventions, has seen the sector post strong recovery, but it is currently facing Covid-19 related challenges, with many sector players operating below capacity.
Fresh fish is cleaned and left to dry under sunshine for some time. It is then put on a wire mesh and covered with banana leaves in the oven for smoking.
After some time, fish is changed over to allow both sides to dry.
It is then removed from the oven and left to cool before being packed for dispatch.