Andrew Aijuka

Ngege fish species (oreochromis esculentus) is a typical delicacy among fish-loving Ugandans. It is indigenous to Lake Victoria and its affluent rivers, lake Nabugabo, lake Kyoga basin, and the Victoria Nile. However, Ngege is a critically endangered fish species with a high risk of facing extinction. This assessment is entailed in Uganda’s first national red list for fish species. 

The list, which mirrors the global level International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Critically Endangered species, offers the latest state of conservation of fish in Uganda, the IUCN Red List whose 43% of all assessments are outdated, having been published in 2010 or before.

According to the list – released last month (March), Uganda has 293 species, 40 (13.3%) of which are threatened with extinction. The IUCN framework establishes seven red list categories; extinct, extinct in the wild, critically endangered, endangered, vulnerable, near-threatened, and least concerned.

The launch of the National Red List was held on 21st March 2023 in Kampala. With support from the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), NaFIRRI with partners have now updated distribution of all fish species with a native range in Uganda and assessed the extinction risk of all the fish species at the national scale to create the first national red list for the fishes of Uganda. The list is a comprehensive source of information on the conservation status of fishes of the country, their distribution, and threats. The list can be used by the public, government agencies, development partners, civil society organizations for conservation decision making, research, capacity building, and advocacy.

On Uganda’s Red List of Fishes, five species are in the critically endangered category, six in the endangered category, and 31 are vulnerable. The list also shows that 95 fish species belong to the least concerned category, and 131 species are data deficient at the national level.

On Ngege fish, the list says, “this species is critically endangered. During 1930s through the 1960s, the species declined strongly due to intensive fishing. Later, competition and hybridization with introduced tilapias, especially Oreochromis niloticus (Nile Tilapia),  suppressed their recovery,” adding that remnant populations are still hanging, especially in the minor lakes within Kyoga basin.

Apart from Ngege, the list also red-flags the conservation status of Alestes baremoze fish; another popular fish specie in Uganda. Locally known as Angara, this specie is threatened and likely to reduce the area/extent of quality habitat and adult population, according to the List.

This fish specie exists mainly in Lake Albert, Murchison, and lower Victoria Niles, River Aswa, and Albert Nile, and is the most distinct food item sold to many people including travelers in Pakwach – the gateway town of Uganda’s West Nile region.

On the other hand, the list details a positive conservation status for Nile Perch (Lates niloticus) – which the National Fisheries Resources Research Institute (NaFIRRI) describes as Uganda’s most important commercial fish specie. According to the List, the Nile Perch has a wide distribution, with threats present, but these (threats) are not likely to affect the entire population within ten years.

Nile Tilapia fished in Lake Kyoga. Photo by Fredrick Mugira

Threats to Fishes in Uganda

According to the assessment, threats to freshwater biodiversity in Uganda are intensifying, with ten issues pointed out as major threats to aquatic ecosystems in Uganda. These are intensive fishing, pollution, habitat degradation, oil and gas development, weak law enforcement, river damming, eutrophication, climate change, invasive species, and hybridization.

Data Deficiency Concerns

The fisheries sector in Uganda has, over the past years, invested in research and has previously launched a freshwater biodiversity portal for Uganda supported by the JRS Biodiversity.

This portal is intended to be a one-stop center for all the data and information on freshwater biodiversity in Uganda.

According to Laban Musinguzi, the Portal Editor, each assessed fish species on the national red list has a distribution map. “The maps provide information about where each of the species is found, including those threatened with extinction. The maps are a tool for prioritizing habitats for conservation,” he explains.

However, experts like Dr. Vianny Natugonza from Busitema University Maritime Institute are concerned about the 132 fish species on the national red list that are data deficient (DD). There is no record of them available within the last 30 years. To experts, this signals that more species than are currently listed could be threatened with extinction.

Men fishing in Lake River Nile in Uganda. Photo by Fredrick Mugira.

A Benchmark for Conservation and Planning

The Government of Uganda has stepped up efforts to transform agriculture from subsistence to commercial- with fisheries as one of the key sector pillars. According to Tom Mukasa Bukenya, the Acting Director of Fisheries at the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry, and Fisheries there is a linkage between data access and data utilization and this is even emphasized in the new Fisheries and Aquaculture Act of 2023.

He explains that the national red list can inform decisions on formulating and implementing national policies and multilateral environmental agreements that Uganda is a signatory to.

According to NaFFIRI, the global IUCN red list of threatened species is currently used in environmental and social impact assessments (ESIA) to make decisions on conservation measures associated with development projects. It now wants the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) and environmental practitioners to adopt the national red list in preparing, reviewing, and approving ESIA reports for all development projects.

Also, Dr. Natugonza observes that with numerous threats to freshwater biodiversity in Uganda scientists must develop safeguarding solutions based on information about conservation status and the extinction risk of the different species, a gap the first national red list for fish species addresses.

The national red list for the fishes of Uganda generates new information on the conservation status of the fish species, areas where they can be found, and threats faced. This must become the benchmark for planning and conserving fish in the abundantly endowed Uganda.

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  1. This is very helpful. However, UGANDA Aquaculture should consider a few demo fish farmers with support, who will continue conservation of endangered fishes. Tilapia Zilli is as well becoming scarse.
    Rural Aquaculture Development in Rukungiri Uganda, RAD is in partnership with UK based organisation, is able to take up a few activities related to conservation if it gets ample discussion with uganda’s Aquaculture.

    All farmers look at fast growing species that fetch income easely. There for indigenous species slowly phase out.

    1. True. Fish farmers can participate in fish conservation in many ways. For instance, they have to ensure that their farm practices do not promote the transfer of invasive species. All the threatened species in Uganda could benefit more if they fished less and their habitats are protected. These should be the main focus.

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