Two years ago on a cold night in September, Rwanda Police Marine Team operating on Lake Kivu received a distress call at around 8pm.
The Marine Police Team, while on patrol on the side of Kageyo Sector in Rutsiro District, western Rwanda, responded to the call from poachers who had been attacked by robbers in the waters.
Four robbers using own boat had over-powered two poachers on a separate boat. The poachers had stones, sticks and other crude weapons. They destroyed the poachers’ boat, stole fishing gears and left the poachers to drown, according to the account of Marine Commanding Officer, Assistant Commissioner of Police (ACP) Elias Mwesigye.
The dangerous event described here is not an unusual occurrence. The response from the Police unit is part of its responsibility to enforce a periodic ban on fishing on Lake Kivu.
During the whole of August and September, fishing is by law, banned, in what has been named as “Biological Break”.
The poachers and robbers in the case above, were all not supposed to be on the lake when the incident happened.
The ban was introduced by a Ministerial Order in 2020. It allows the suspension of fishing activities to allow recovery of aquatic organisms’ stock. The Order puts in place other fishing control measures such as net sizes and times for fishing.
The breaks were brought in as a Government policy response to dwindling fish production from Rwanda’s main lake. The country has 101 lakes, but 19 are the major ones producing the nation’s fish. Of these, however, Lake Kivu makes up 75 percent of the country’s lake water.
Though the break lasts two months, it can be extended depending on the assessment carried out by the aquaculture and fishery team at the Rwanda Agriculture and Animal Resources Board (RAB).
It is not by law that the breaks have to be in August and September. The choice of the break period depends on the particular biological characteristics of aquatic organisms of each lake.
Why Lake Kivu
According to Aquaculture and Fisheries Policy Specialist, Mathilde Mukasekuru, at the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources (MINAGRI), there is a particular scientific logic to why August and September were selected.
“During this period of the year, the climate is good, allowing for fast replenishment of stocks. After the two months, fishermen catch bigger silver fish,” says Mukasekuru.
“By applying biological break, we help baby fish to grow, as August and September is a reproductive period. This is when you find a lot of small silver fish in the lake but after two months fishermen catch them big in size,” she says.
Balthazar Masengesho, the Plankton and Ecology Specialist at the Rwanda Environment Management Authority (REMA) says that weekly data collected to determine when the Biological Break should be set, showed that in August and September, the standards for oxygen and temperature in Lake Kivu are good for fish to grow.
During these two months, fishing of all species is banned on the lake. The Police Marine Team, in collaboration with the Military conduct 24-hour patrols and surveillance on the lake to ensure adherence. As for the rest of the year, the security personnel maintain presence, but looking out for people on the lake without due certifications, or using the wrong equipment.
According to government data and fisherfolk on Lake Kivu, the Biological Breaks, have been a game changer for the sector.
Fish production on Lake Kivu slightly increased from 18,756 tonnes in 2020/21 to 19,479 tonnes in 2021/22.
In 2022, Lake Kivu accounted for 44.6 percent of total national fish production, as per agriculture ministry data.
Turwanyinzara Murwa cooperative in Nyamasheke District, says just one of their fishing teams came back with less than 10 kilograms from a night of fishing before the Breaks were introduced.
The produce has shot up to over 60 kilograms per night for that same single team. The Lake’s total annual fish production rose by 20.2 percent last year compared to 2020 which had 16,194 tonnes.
The fish is bigger in size
We met Musitafa Gahimano and Jean Marie Vianney Ufitamahoro who have been fishing together on the lake for past four years. Their specialty is catching silver fish or limnothrissa miodon locally known as ‘Isambaza’.
“We are catching bigger silver fish than we used to before the Biological Breaks came, which of course translates to better prices at the market,” said Gahimano, the father of two.
Fine Fish Ltd is a large fish production company, one of the firms involved. We took a 15 minutes boat ride, away from the lakeshores to the company’s fish farm on the lake. In some cages, Tilapia fish were being fed by workers. He also has farms on Lake Muhazi, another large lake to the east of Rwanda.
Launched in 2013, Fine Fish Ltd Managing Director Themistocle Munyangeyo tells The Chronicles that he is recording better yields since 2020. The company’s fish production is increasing year after year – reaching 45 tonnes monthly, thanks to favorable climatic conditions and good water quality, says Munyangeyo.
Clearly, there is a combination of various factors allowing for the company’s production growth. It supplies the capital Kigali, other towns, and targets to export to eastern DR Congo.
Munyangeyo explained: “Fishing habits on the Lake have changed for the better in the past three years due to controls that deal with illegal fishing. However, fast increasing demand for fish has also encouraged people to take risks to fish illegally because they know there is a ready market.”
He added: “Consumption of fish has also risen significantly in recent years, perhaps due to widespread education and sensitization about benefits of fish. Also, because the fish is available.”
Lake Kivu is shared, yet DRC is not involved
Before the start of the implementation of the first Biological Break of 2021, a national sensitisation campaign was conducted via media, and physical meetings in areas around Lake Kivu. However, communities living closest to the lake need fishing for daily consumption needs, hence, they are often willing to take risks to fish on the shores, hoping they don’t get nabbed.
Besides, the lake is shared with DR Congo, but the Biological Break applies only to Rwanda. There is no mandatory controls on the other side of the lake. And because there is no demarcated border like it would have been on land, the Congolese fish endlessly, which is, without a doubt, impacting on fish stocks.
The two countries are currently engaged in a geopolitical fight, whereby Kinshasa has suspended key agreements and unwilling to do anything with Kigali. The situation may stay like that for quite some time.
Agriculture ministry’s Aquaculture and Fisheries Policy Specialist Mukasekuru explained that having no similar Biological Breaks on the whole lake is just one of the various issues of concern.
“It is unlikely there are working regulations for fishing on the DRC side. It doesn’t appear like they are concerned about fluctuations in fish stocks,” said Mukasekuru.
“The fishing sector there operates under a law promulgated in 1932, compared to ours as recent as 2008. Anyone who feels like fishing, goes to the lake. Regulations would have aided the sector if there was some form of organization like in cooperatives.”
A 2019 inspection by Rwanda’s agriculture ministry found 27 cooperatives, 1,753 fishermen, 298 fishing boats operating officially on Lake Kivu.
The inspections are meant to maintain good practices. But that hasn’t prevented illegal fishing, which, according to various unofficial sources, is driven by unemployment especially among the youth.
The Agriculture Ministry’s 2021-22 report released early this year, shows that over 30,000 illegal fishing nets and over 759 poaching boats were confiscated, while 196 poachers reported to Police Marine and Army stations.
The poachers and equipment were seized through regular surveillance and monitoring of fishing activities in collaboration with Police marine, Army marine and Cooperative Union.
Some fishermen and local leaders say men unable to find stable work, opt to travel to DRC side to acquire fishing nets that have illegal sizes under Rwandan law. These sources also say the Rwandans go to fish on Congolese side of the lake, hoping they don’t get intercepted by suspicious Congolese authorities.
Another challenge to the Biological Break, which doesn’t have official tracking data, is that although there are marine patrol boats, people in communities closest to the shores often continue fishing on the shores throughout the year. This is particularly a serious problem because fish reproduces from vegetation that grows on the shores.
It could suggest that these people are picking out fish that would have grown to bigger size. Fishermen working on the lake say more will need to be done to curb fishing on the shores.
The 2008 law that governs aquaculture and fishing in Rwanda sets tough restrictions for the right to fishing in public waters. When caught fishing without authorization attracts a fine of up six months in jail and a fine of up to a Rwf 200,000 ($180).
The various laws and a host of policy instruments like National Aquaculture Strategy for Rwanda (NASR), seek to raise fish production to 106,000 tons by 2035, of which around 80,620 tons will be from aquaculture, with an estimated 26,000 tons from wild fisheries.
Current annual production, from last year, was 43,650 tones.
This story was produced as part of Science Africa 2022-2023 Solutions Journalism (SoJo) Newsrooms Training Program.