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Story Publication logo March 1, 2023

Herders Turn to Fishing in the Desert Amid Severe Drought, Putting Pressure on Fish Population


A person walks their animals through a rural street at sunset

How do former pastoralists still perceive the wealth and social hierarchy that animals signify for...


Fishermen at dawn heading out onto Lake Turkana. Image by Kang-Chun Cheng. Kenya, 2023.
  • As Northern Kenya’s unabating drought continues, a growing wave of pastoralists are finding it challenging to keep their livestock alive and are switching to fishing in Lake Turkana, the world’s largest desert lake.
  • However, environmentalists, fishing authorities, and some fishers worry that potential overfishing and increased pressures on fish populations will cause a collapse in fish stocks and the lake’s ecosystem.
  • Authorities are also concerned about the rampant use of illegal fishing gear, such as thin mesh nets that catch undersized fish in shallow breeding zones, and an illegal tilapia smuggling network draining the lake by the tons.
  • Though no studies have yet been done to assess fish populations, some environmentalists and fishers are calling for better enforcement of regulations to keep livelihoods afloat.

Pour lire ce rapport en français, cliquez ici.

WEST TURKANA, Kenya—By late morning along Kaito beach on the western banks of Lake Turkana, the heat beating down from the sun is already deadly hot. A cluster of villagers, mostly women, flock around boats docked from an overnight fishing voyage. They’re engrossed in gutting and washing the catches as children and several litters of puppies splash about the shallow waters; young men sort through the near-translucent nets in preparation for the following day’s trip. But underneath the buzz of energy is some anxiety, tinged with gloom—today, the fish barely fill a few baskets.

“This is all we got,” says one of the fishers, 24-year-old Teresa Ekutan. “It’s hardly enough to feed us all.”

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The catches have been sparse for a few weeks now, Lochampa Ekingol tells Mongabay. At 32, she lives in one of the few dozen akai akamatei (straw huts) a mere stone’s throw away from the lake with her seven children. In 2017, Ekingol opted to leave behind her life of herding and move from Lowarengak town—a two-hour walk on sandy roads in fierce heat—for closer proximity to the lake to take up fishing. In the face of the current severe drought putting millions of lives and livestock at risk in Kenya and the Horn of Africa, she and the fifty or so other villagers who came with her are part of a growing wave of pastoralists switching livelihoods to fish in the world’s largest desert lake.

Fishermen near the Turkwel delta on the western shores of the lake, sorting through their shared nets. Image by Kang-Chun Cheng. Kenya, 2023.

Near the Turkwel delta, which fed into Lake Turkana before drought dried up its streams, a community’s salt-cured and sun dried fish are ready for selling. Image by Kang-Chun Cheng. Kenya, 2023.

Attracted by both the water and fish within its depths, these villagers are part of Turkana’s booming fishing industry. But potential overfishing, the use of illegal fishing gear and a tilapia fish smuggling network are contributing to concerns about the lake’s fish populations, worrying environmentalists, authorities, and fishers alike. Though it’s difficult to assess exact fish populations, fishers have noticed a smaller catch in recent weeks.

Even before the current succession of five missed rainy seasons ravaging Kenya and the Horn of Africa, several of Ekingol’s 20 cattle were faring poorly in the desiccating environment from heat stress and starvation. She sold the survivors to support her move to join the region’s booming fish economy.

“For the Turkana community, there is a saying that ‘the lake is our shamba,’ which loosely translates into ‘the lake is our farm,’” says John Malala, a scientist at the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI) based in Kalokol, nearly 60 kilometers (37 miles) from Kaito beach. “As a coping mechanism, they turn to fishing to survive and to feed their families during droughts.”

As environmental conditions intensify, even the most resilient pastoralists have been pushed to the brink. The Kenya government most recently recorded 2.5 million livestock deaths. The population facing acute food insecurity has spiked to 4.4 million people, according to the 2022 Short Rains Assessment Report. Meteorological agencies aren’t optimistic the trend will change soon. Though future weather patterns are uncertain, there is a broad consensus that below-average rains may continue the upcoming March to May 2023 rainy season—East Africa’s most critical rainy period.

Image courtesy of Mongabay.

Patricia Nying’uro, a climate scientist at the Kenya Meteorological Department, says that although there are several causes of the ongoing drought, negative La Niña conditions are a significant contributing factor. This periodic cooling of sea-surface temperatures over the Pacific Ocean, the meteorologist tells Mongabay, leads to certain negative indices, such as prolonged drought.

Herders, particularly ones no stranger to harsh, arid landscapes, have always been adaptive, says Samuel Derbyshire, an anthropologist at the University of Oxford specializing in East African pastoralism. They supplement their main livelihood of herding animals with whatever makes sense, whether tending sorghum crops with the emergence of seasonal floodplains or catching fish to fortify the household diet. That’s the beauty of the fluidity of pastoralism, he says. But this time, it’s unclear how permanent this deviation from fishing is.

For the Turkana, the dominant ethnic group of this county, their animals constitute not only their livelihoods but also an integral facet of their cultural identities. It’s a famed relationship, one described as ‘overreliance’ in a report by the International Institute of Social Studies. Even at present, camels and cattle form the basis of most Turkana social institutions, from marriage to birthing rituals.

The daily livestock market in Lodwar, a business hub in Turkana County. Image by Kang-Chun Cheng. Kenya, 2023.

“When one community wants to marry, they need to fetch cattle from another community,” says Kevin Obiero, a center director and researcher at the KMFRI. “Livestock is pride, fish is cash economy. Given the environmental circumstances, fisheries are getting the limelight with the cash it brings in.”

Precarious fish, precarious livelihoods

Forty-eight-year-old Namunio Lakadengoi, a Lowarengak native, moved his family to Kaito for drought-related reasons six years ago. He was a man of considerable wealth, owning four camels, 32 cattle, and more than 150 goats. As his animals were falling ill and dying, he sold all the remaining ones and used the money to purchase ten fishing nets, which are shared amongst the tight-knit community in Kaito. He learned how to fish from his father and says that he didn’t necessarily want to leave his animals but felt that there was little choice.

“Life was too hard,” Lakadengoi says with a sigh as he gazes over the tarps lined with tilapia and Nile perch fish, drying in the sun.

According to Maurice Obiero, the KMFRI station coordinator at Kalokol, exactly how increased fishing pressures will impact fish populations is unclear for now. According to KMFRI findings, in 2021, the total fish caught in the lake was estimated at 13,000 metric tons, valued at approximately $10 million—a hefty sum for Turkana, one of the poorest counties in Kenya. The surprising rise in Lake Turkana’s water levels over the past decade has expanded fishers’ access to new fishing areas.

Sunrise from the western shores of Lake Turkana, which has been flooding over the past decade along with other RIft Valley lakes. Image by Kang-Chun Cheng. Kenya, 2023.

“Historically, a rise in Turkana’s waters has been linked to increases in fish populations, since the flooding creates more fish breeding areas. Of course, it’s difficult to estimate the exact fish population, but more water generally leads to high fish catches,” Malala explains.

There are currently 68 known species of fish in Lake Turkana, home to three national parks where the breeding habitats of the Nile crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus) and hippopotamus (hippopotamus amphibious) lay, but Malala says he has an inkling there are at least a few fish species yet described by science. Around 15 to 22 species, including tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus), Nile perch (Lates niloticus, known as ijii in the local language), and tiir (a species of catfish, Synodontis schall), have high economic value and are sold as far as the DRC and Uganda.

Environmentalists and the KMFRI are concerned about how many fishers are introducing and using mesh nets made of single-fiber fishing lines in the lake. The Fisheries Management and Development Act of 2016 has banned nets that are smaller than forty-five millimeters in stretched diagonal length as they catch baby fish (also known as fingerlings), especially in their shallow breeding zones—areas easily accessible by fishermen. This can reduce a species’ population by catching fish before they’ve had a chance to spawn, affecting the breeding process. Any kind of fishing of undersized fish is also banned in the country. While visiting the region, Mongabay saw thin mesh nets used all along Kaito’s shores.

“It is a destructive fishing gear, especially when small mesh sizes are used. In addition, abandoning old ones by the shore pollutes. If it finds its way in the water, as a fine nylon or plastic material, it will continue to harvest and wound the fish,” John Malala, a scientist at KMFRI based in Kalokol, tells Mongabay.

Dried fish on display and ready to be sold at a market, which was erected in 2011 adjacent to the Lodwar livestock market. Image by Kang-Chun Cheng. Kenya, 2023.

Lake Turkana has also become the epicenter of a highly lucrative, transboundary tilapia smuggling network. According to an investigation by the Nation, at least three trucks with 300 bales of tilapia weighing a total of 60 tonnes leave Northern Kenya per week. Kalokol, home to the KMFRI station, is the center of the smuggling operation that is led by middlemen and corrupt officials. There is a lack of monitoring of local beaches to ensure compliance with fisheries management law due to underfunding.

Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute fear the lake’s ecosystem and the species population faces possible collapse.

Joseph Kasuti, an assistant director at the Kenya Fisheries Service, the body that develops and monitors compliance with fishing law, tells Mongabay that fishers prefer to use undersized nets, although monitoring to prevent the capture of immature fish exists. Culprits are seized and prosecuted, and nets are confiscated, recorded, and sometimes burnt to prevent future smuggling with permission from resident law courts. The number of nets confiscated was not shared with Mongabay.

Immanuel Eregae, born and bred in Lowarengak, is among the subsistence fishers that condemn the use of small net sizes that prevent the maturation of future health schools and further put their newfound livelihoods at risk. Already the smaller catch the fishers have noticed in recent weeks worries them. But other fishers, when encountering smaller and smaller catches, use fine nets in desperation to catch anything.

“What will there be left for the future if you use this small of a net,” he berated the boys who were sorting through the offending gear, picking off undersized fish.

A young boy looking out over Lake Turkana from Lochilet beach. As the heat of the day dissipates, communities gather to the shores to bathe, wash clothes, and socialize. Image by Kang-Chun Cheng. Kenya, 2023.

There is a myriad of other factors that may impact the fish population in the lake and the reduced catch, but linkages are difficult to conclude due to a lack of data and research attention. According to Natasha Gownaris, a marine scientist at Gettysburg College, seasonal pulses from the Omo River in Ethiopia that feed into the lake and bring in food and nutrients help signal to fish when to breed and migrate. The completion of the Gibe III Dam in Ethiopia, Kenya’s northern neighbor diminished these downstream pulsations, perhaps affecting fish populations, she says.

Despite the uncertainties and livelihood shifts, Obiero perceives the Turkana’s emotional attachment to their animals as unwavering. “Thirty camels are so different from 30 bales of fish,” he says. “The value that animals hold is irreplaceable by fish or money.”


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