Fredrick Mugira, Bertha Fellow

When the sun had nearly set, John Depari and two other fishers slowed down their motorized boat and said to one another, “It is here,” before casting nets somewhere in the quiet waters of Lake Edward in western Uganda.

It was not only the nets they cast: there were stones, empty plastic bottles of soft drinks, and pieces of plastic slippers tied to the nets to enable them to float and sink simultaneously! The plastic bottles and pieces of slippers, also known as floats, are also crucial in the identification of the nets’ location.

“For a fifty-foot net, we put a bottle at one end and a bottle at the other. We put various pieces of plastic slippers in the middle to enable the net to float,” narrates Depari.

A fisher at Kazinga Channel in Uganda holds empty plastic bottles tied to fishing nets. They are used as floats. Photo by Fredrick Mugira

Depari cannot recall the number of plastic bottles and slippers he has used in the past three years; he knows they are “many.”

“Haaaa, maybe over 300 bottles and thousands of slippers. They are very many,” he notes.

Like Depari, Taremwa Herbert, a fisher in the Kazinga channel that connects Lakes Edward and George, has been using plastic bottles and pieces of plastic slippers to enable his nets to float. For the last 23 years, the 42-year-old fisher cannot tell the number of plastic bottles and slippers he has used. He also says they are many, like “thousands.”

At Kayinja landing site on the nearby Lake George, in Matsyoro sub-county, Kitagwenda district, Rajab Mumbere is one of the owners of the 45 boats at this spot. He has been fishing in Lake George for the last 20 years. Mumbere also uses plastic floats like other fishers at this landing site.

“Even when water flows, we can track the new location of our nets by looking at the plastic bottles and the slippers,” narrates Mumbere.

Why do people who depend on the lake pollute it?

Although the three fishers know that plastics pollute the lakes, and are toxic and poisonous to fish and fish consumers, one thing they admit: they have “no option.”

“What do you want us to use? Without the floats, our nets will disappear. We will get out of this business. We won’t be able to support our families,” narrates Depari.

These plastic bottles regularly get off the nets, turning into waste in the lakes. When they get off the nets, the fishers may not easily take them back to the land for proper disposal. They discard them into the lake, which Marite Ibrahim, a former fisher, confesses.

Pieces of slippers fishers at Lakes Edward and George use as floats for their nets. Photo by Fredrick Mugira

Marite, 47, left his 31-year-old career when Covid19 struck. He is now a rider of the famous Boda Boda, a commercial motorcycle.

“If it falls in the lake, we leave it. If it has no cover, it (plastic bottle) fills with water and dirt and sinks to the bottom of the lake,” recounts Marite.

At the Katunguru landing site of 30 boats, Abas Bisaniko, the chairperson of the site, estimates that every day, fishers take over 100 plastic bottles to the lake, and “25 percent of these may not return.” They are left in the lake, some sink, and others are trapped by plants and deposited on the lake’s edges, where fish breed.

Pieces of slippers, empty plastic bottles, and fishing nets in a boat at the Katunguru landing site in the Kasese district. Photo by fredricck Mugira

This happens to the pieces of plastic slippers too. The fishers source slippers and tear them into smaller pieces. Just like other plastics, plastic slippers are buoyant. They can be trapped by the papyrus reeds and other plants in and around the lakes if they get off the nets. The aggregation of plastic wastes compromises the water quality in such places, which are usually fish breeding and nursery areas.

According to Dr. David Were, a water quality researcher and lecturer at Uganda’s Makerere University, fishers contribute to “direct littering of plastics within the lakes by throwing drinking water bottles within the lakes when they go fishing and also the disposal plastic floats which they embed on the nets for fishing.”

He says some plastic matters usually get “adsorbed onto suspended matter and sediment to the lake bottom where they become part of the sediments.”

Empty plastic bottles in Lake Edrwad at Kahenero II landing site. Photo by Fredrick Mugira

Plastics in the fish you eat

While in the water, such plastic wastes quickly become part of the food for the fish and subsequently food for humans that consume fish.

Ghaamid Abdulbasat Hatibu, a Tanzanian environmental scientist and ecohydrologist, argues that “the ecosystem underwater is usually colorful, so they (fish) mistake the color of the plastics for the color of their food.”

A fisherman at lake Edward holds pieces of a sandal used as floats for the fishing nets

But also smaller plastics can be eaten by the fish when they mix up with the food available within the marine ecosystem, according to Ghaamid.

The ingested plastics affect the fish quality; eventually, the plastic debris may find its way into humans during the food chain.

Agatha Muhumuza, also known as Mama Kyomu, has been cleaning fresh fish at the Katunguru landing site for the last 30 years. She says she has never found any plastic debris in fish. But this may not suggest fish, and other marine organisms do not consume them because, according to Ghaamid, it is not just the plastic debris that accumulates in fish but “the compounds in the plastics which keep increasing” within the fish without it and its consumers noticing.

Agatha Muhumuza, also known as Mama Kyomu has been cleaning fresh fish at the Katunguru landing site for the last 30 years. Photo by Fredrick Mugira

A 2016 study on Lake Victoria’s southern shore found that “20% of each fish species” studied contained “confirmed microplastics within their gastrointestinal tracts.”

The study detailed the polymers recovered from the fish to include “polyethylene, polyurethane, polyester, polyethylene/polypropylene copolymer, and silicone rubber,” categorizing “the common use of such materials to include packaging, clothing, food and drink containers, insulation, and industrial applications.”

While speaking at the 2022 virtual training sessions on water and communications facilitated by the Stockholm International Water Institute, Bethanie Carney Almroth, associate professor and researcher, University of Gothenburg, said plastics are “home to over 10,000 chemicals” linked to “increased cancer, infertility, decreased penis size,” in humans.

The ingested plastics affect the fish quality; eventually, the plastic debris may find its way into humans during the food chain.

Who generates this waste?

The fishers say they pick the plastic bottles from waste containers in urban centers where they are dumped by consumers and sellers of soft drinks and herbal beverages. In Uganda, there are no clear structures to return used plastic bottles to manufacturers for recycling after use.  

The fishers, especially at the Kazinga Channel, accuse tourists who come to the site of discarding the plastic bottles there.  

The 32-kilometer-long natural channel links Lakes Edward and George. It is one of Queen Elizabeth National Park’s features that attracts several tourists year-round. Katunguru Landing Site is located on this channel. 

At Kahenero II landing site on Lake George in Kahendo, Kasese, Kalid Mubiru, a fisher there, says plastic bottles are brought there by “residents who buy soft drinks in them.”

What have the two lakes ever done for us?

Lake Edward, the smallest among the African Great lakes, is shared between Uganda (29%) and the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC (71%). It connects with Lake George through the 36 km Kazinga Channel.

In terms of biodiversity, the two lakes support a highly diverse fauna and harbor commercial fisheries that are an essential source of food, livelihood, and income for residents near the lake shores and urban areas.

They are home to various species of fish, including Oreochromis niloticus ( Nile Tilapia), locally known as Ngege,  Bagrus docmac, locally known as Semutundu; Protopterus aethiopicus, locally known as Mamba, and Clarias gariepinus, locally known as Male.

Nile tilapia caught in Lake Edward. Photo by Fredrick

In 2020, the National Fisheries Resources Research Institute (NaFIRRI) estimated that the two lakes had an annual catch of 6,637 tons (t) of fish; 2744 tons in Lake Edward and 3431.2 tons in Lake George. The remaining 461.8 tons came from Kazinga Channel.

Lake Edward’s basin alone is home to over 81 fish species. It employs 1,000 fishers in the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, and over 1,100 in Uganda, according to the African Center for Aquatic Research and Education. It is vital for tourism, being a neighbor to Virunga and Queen Elizabeth national parks in the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, and Uganda, respectively.

Uganda’s fisheries subsector contributes about 12 percent to the agricultural GDP and 2.5 percent to the national GDP, according to Byamukama Patrick Byaruhanga, the senior fisheries officer at the directorate of fisheries resources in Uganda’s agriculture ministry.

Safe practices and fishing gears

In the past, the fishers at these lakes employed plant-based floats made out of papyrus reeds and bamboo stems that can biodegrade as an option to plastic floats, but this was discouraged. It destroyed the environment.

“The park authorities stopped us because this was destroying papyrus reeds,” discloses Marite.

At the Katunguru landing site, some fishers are innovatively using the red-hot poker tree, also known as Lucky Tree, botanically identified as Erythrina Abyssinica to mitigate the effects of plastic pollution.

“We cut, dry, and make pieces of any sizes we want. For it when it gets off the nets, it easily decays not like plastics which live forever,” narrates Taremwa.

But in addition to its current uses, this tree species could soon become extinct if its floats’ production is heightened. Its wood is used to make various products, including stools, drums, and beehives, while its roots make good walking sticks.

At the Kahenero II landing site on Lake George, Musimenta Ramathan, the fishers’ association’s secretary, says they have put in place dustbins for easy gathering and management of plastic wastes.

Unfortunately, it is from these dustbins that fishers pick and reuse the plastic bottles as floats for their nets, according to Musimenta.

At the Katunguru landing site, fishers are working with the local council authorities and Uganda Wildlife Authority officials to pick and burn plastic bottles from a nearby incinerator. This plastic waste includes the plastic floats discarded by the fishers.

A man burns plastic bottles in an incinerator at Kazinga Channel in Kasese, Uganda. Photo by Fredrick Mugira

Sande William, 54, in charge of sanitation and hygiene at the Katunguru landing site, is one of the fishers who spend time picking plastics. He grew up at the site. His parents were fishers at the same landing site.

“We keep picking them to ensure they do not become a menace at the site,” Sande says. He calls on the government to help the fishers access sustainable floats for eco-friendly fishing.  

There are various biodegradable fishing floats on the market, and Uganda’s government has encouraged fishers to use them. However, the fishers say they cannot afford them. But also, environmentalists have questioned bioplastics saying they emit methane on the landfill sites where they are dumped. Methane is a greenhouse gas. Bioplastics are made from crops such as wheat, maize, and sugarcane.

“Ban the plastics. There is no way fishers can do without them. They are cheap and easily accessed, but they keep falling in the lake when we use them,” narrates Bisaniko.

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