Nile perch - marketing success or ecological disaster?

 (This article first appeared in Seafood International, May 1997. The author wishes to thank the publishers for permission to reproduce the material here. Megapesca also acknowledges Centre for Development of Industry for permission to reproduce the photographs.)

Introduction: Lake Victoria and the Nile perch fishery

The Nile perch Lates niloticus is a large freshwater fish found extensively in the rivers and lakes of Africa. Also known as capitaine, mputa or sangara, it can grow up to 200 kg and two metres in length. It is a predator, and lives and feeds throughout the water column. Its main attractions as a food fish are its abundance, ease of catching with a variety of artisanal and industrial techniques, its large size and very palatable bone-free white flesh.

Nile perch landing site near Kisumu, KenyaA substantial fishery based on Lake Victoria supplies export markets worth an estimated US$140 million to the three bordering countries - Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda, providing a major source of revenue for fisherfolk, processors and exporters.

Lake Victoria is the second largest freshwater lake in the World, with an area of 68,000km2. However, the lake is relatively shallow, with a maximum depth of 84m and mean depth of just 40m. The area of the lake is divided into the national waters of the bordering countries, with Kenya owning 6%, Uganda 45% and Tanzania 49% of the area.

Click here for a map of Lake Victoria

Nile perch first appeared in Lake Victoria in the late 1950s, when it may have have been introduced deliberately. The ecology of the Lake has been significantly affected by this action. By 1980 catches started to increase substantially to the present level estimated at 500,000 tonnes per annum.

Most of the fishing in the three countries is undertaken from small canoes, using either paddle or outboard power. Typically fishermen will use will use drift nets, set overnight, although some fish is also caught with baited longlines. In Uganda, industrial fishing techniques are banned, but in Kenyan and Tanzanian waters there is some limited use of pair trawling from industrial scale vessels.

Catch recording is difficult given the disperse nature of the fishery and landings. Official statistics (without doubt under-recorded) from the three countries suggest a production of around 363,000 tonnes in 1994, with 29% landed in Kenya, 27% in Uganda and 44% in Tanzania.

The fish are landed at numerous small landing sites on the shore or off-lying islands, where they are bought by traders or directly by processors for onward road transport to the factory or market. Only the best quality fish are selected for export processing.

There is only a limited use of ice by fishermen. Most often the fish are iced by the merchant or processor after purchase at the landing site. Conditions at beach landing sites are poor, lacking potable water supply, clean auction areas and toilets. However, there is a now a trend to improved control of the distribution chain, with some of the main buyers operating collection vessels to receive and ice fish directly on the lake. Along with extension of line fishing, this should result in a definite improvements in product quality.


Although Kenya owns the smallest part of the lake, the country has been instrumental in developing the processing and export activity, and both Ugandan and Tanzanian fishermen have historically landed their catches in and around Kisumu, which is the Kenyan centre of the Nile perch industry. Here there are 12 operating factories (although some fish is also processed in Nairobi and even Mombasa). Now however, both Uganda (with 12 factories at Entebbe, Kampala and Jinja) and Tanzania (with 10 factories around Mwanza) have both developed a processing capability. The processors have formed strong national associations to represent their members.

Uganda is the only country to impose and reasonably enforce official controls on exploitation, and each factory is given an export quota, based on a nominal total supply of 100,000 tonnes from Lake Victoria and about 20,000 tonnes from other sources (eg.Lake Kyoga to the north of Kampala). Official policy dictates that about 50% of the catch should be available to the domestic market, leaving 60,000 tonnes for export. However, processing capacity is presently estimated at over 73,000 tonnes per annum.

Trimming of nile perch fillets, Mwanza, TanzaniaAt the processing factories, most of which meet standards of design and construction specified in the EU hygiene directive (91/493/EEC), the fish are washed and sorted. They are chilled and kept in ice until ready for processing (up to one day). The fish are then filleted by hand without gutting, and the fillets then skinned and trimmed. The skinning is usually done by hand as well, although some processors have installed mechanical skinners.

The skinning process adopted depends on the market. The Northern European, American and Australian markets require a deep skinned fillet (30% yield), so as to remove completely the layer of subcutaneous fat. All dark flesh and pin-bones are also removed. Southern European markets (Spain and Greece) prefer a higher yield (35%) fillet, which is not so heavily trimmed (with pin-bone in) and has a lower price. The Israeli market allows for a much higher yield (40%), which leaves a portion of the skin attached. The Japanese market demands a skin-on scaled fillet (in which case the yield is 42%).

Fillet sizes vary, from 300g to 1500g. Large fillets above 1500g are portioned and are always frozen, since the premium fresh markets do not accept very high oil content. The oil content of the flesh increases with size of fish, and ranges from 4 up to 20% in fish over 50kg.

Individual fillets and portions are packed in polythene. If the fish is to be frozen it is packed immediately into waxed cartons of 6kg. or 10kg depending on the market and then blast frozen. Some factories have recently installed plate freezers to achieve a more rapid freezing of fillets. There is some production of headed and gutted fish and steaks, but these form only a small proportion of the total. Frozen fish is transported to Mombasa in refrigerated trucks (including all frozen fish from Uganda and some from Tanzania), and exports by sea are exclusively by container.

Exports of fresh nile perch have developed over the last five years. As with most fish from tropical waters, if well handled, it has a long shelf-life - up to 27 days on ice. For exports of fresh fillets, the cartons are held in a chill store until the consignment is ready for despatch, then packed into polystyrene boxes. These are transported to Nairobi or Entebbe in time for late evening flights to Europe. In addition, there are direct charter flights (for example from twice weekly from Mwanza to EU destinations, carrying 50 tonnes of fish each time)

The cost of air freight to the European market is in the range of US$1.50 to 2.0, which is more than recovered in the premium over frozen fish (where the freight cost is in the region of US$0.50).

Many of the by-products of processing are also utilised. The swim-bladders (maws) are sun-dried and find ready export markets in the Far East. Belly flaps (with their high oil content) and visceral fat can be rendered to produce a high quality fish oil. In the last five years, a small tanning industry has developed in Uganda and Kenya, producing high quality leather goods from the skins. Fillet frames are sold on the local market, where they are fried and sold for consumption by street traders. There is also some artisanal processing of Nile perch employing smoke-drying over wood fires to confer a degree of preservation for distribution to interior markets.

Export markets

Export utilisation of the Nile perch catches from each country is shown in Table 1.

Table 1: Export utilisation of Nile perch catches from Lake Victoria in 1994 (quantities in tonnes)
(Source: FAO Fishery statistics)


Exports (fillets)
Exports (live equivalent)2
% export utilisation
Export value (US$million)
  2 Assumed average yield is 33% The Nile perch trade generates an estimated US$140 million for the three countries concerned. In the case of Uganda and Tanzania the fish provides the main export earnings. The main export markets are Europe, Israel and Australia. Figure 1 shows the rapid development of exports to the EU from all three countries, from just under 4000 tonnes in 1990, to 18,000 tonnes in 1994. Imports continued at this level in 1995 and 1996 and there is little total growth in the market. The main European demand is historically for frozen fillets but this is changing. In 1990, just 6% of imports from the region were in fresh form, rising to 52% in 1996 (and considerably more in terms in value). Providing that present quality problems can be overcome (see below) this trend is likely to continue, since there is a clear demand, especially from the supermarket sector, for the fresh fish. Imports of dressed fish also appear to be on the increase, suggesting a developing use amongst secondary processors and caterers.

Figures 2, 3 and 4 show the different EU trade patterns from the three countries. Kenya’s export industry is mature and still based mainly on frozen fillets. Uganda’s industry shows rapid growth with a heavy emphasis on fresh fillets (82% of volume in 1996). Tanzanian exports have been mainly in the form of frozen fish, reflecting the difficulty in access to the international flights from the Tanzanian landing sites. However, an unknown proportion of Tanzanian product is exported via Kenyan companies (in both fresh and frozen form), and origins are not always specified.


There is a substantial premium for fresh sales, with a declared average export value in 1995 of US$4210/tonne for fresh, compared with US$2816/tonne for frozen. FOB prices for frozen fillets (35% yield) are presently around US$2500/tonne, and are under pressure in the face of static demand. Retail prices in the EU compare favourably with other white fish fillets, such as cod and haddock, which is the main reason for the appeal of the product. At the time of writing retail prices in Belgium for fresh Nile perch fillet were US$9.30 per kg compared with US$9.90 for cod and US$11.30 for whiting fillets.

Main entry points in Europe are Holland, Germany and Belgium in the north and Greece in the south. These countries also represent the main EU markets, along with Spain.

The challenge of the future

The future of this important trade is by no means clear. It is threatened by environmental pressures on the Lake, overfishing and problems of quality and access to the European market.

Several environmental problems could adversely affect the fishery in the future. Development around the lake shore has caused increased pollution through agricultural, sewage and industrial effluents. Deforestation of the lake margins (to provide domestic cooking fuel) increases topsoil erosion and silting. In recent years the has been an explosion of water hyacinth, cutting off sunlight and oxygen to the water below and causing difficulties for shipping and fishing. Algal blooms occur, resulting in local de-oxygenation and fish kills. Environmental pressures on the Lake are tremendous and so far all efforts to manage both their causes and effects have proved fruitless.

There is also strong evidence that Nile perch is being over-fished. The average size of landed fish has declined from over 50kg in 1980 to less than 10kg in 1996. Catch rates are also reported to be in decline. Fisheries scientists believe that the Nile perch fishery is being sustained only by cannibalism of the young fish. Despite the attempts of several aid donors, there is still no systematic approach to the management of the fishery, which by definition will require the active support and collaboration of the three nations. There is a critical lack of information about the fishery (eg. numbers of boats, fishing gear, landings and utilisation of the catch) which would be the first step in establishing a management system. A crash in the fishery is frequently predicted, and would undoubtedly have severe consequences for the estimated 1 million people who depend on Nile perch for their livelihood.

Even if the fishery can be managed effectively, there are some problems to be overcome on the marketing side. Although the processors have been successful in identifying and exploiting markets on several continents, there are now some doubts about the quality and safety of the product. Despite the considerable investment in the processing sector to upgrade factories, there is still an unscrupulous element to the trade (for example processing in unregistered and unhygienic factories - some as far away as coastal cities).

Veterinary authorities in Spain and Italy have detected an unacceptable level of bacteriological contamination in fish from all three countries. As a result, in March 1997, the European Commission announced that all Nile perch imports from the region must be subject to a bacteriological examination for Salmonella and other pathogens on entry to the EU. This will be cause some problems for the trade in fresh fish, since the test results cannot be generated without unacceptable reduction of the shelf-life. This decision will hit the Uganda exporters hardest, since most of their production is geared towards fresh exports. At the time of writing however, it appears that the EU authorities will take a flexible approach, by not detaining consignments from establishments which consistently pass the tests.

The Commission sent an inspection mission to the three countries in May 1997, to assess the situation in detail and decide whether to recognise the competent authorities who issue the health certification and approve the factories for export to the EU. Authorities in all three countries worked hard in collaboration with the industry to strengthen the inspection and certification systems and this resulted in provisional acceptance until December 1997 of a list of approved exporters.

Nile perch filleting line, Mwanza, TanzaniaIn addition, once the present quality issues are overcome, there will be a continuing need to focus on the export and sale of higher value fresh fillets. The future sustainability of the fishery will depend on a reduced volume of catch, with better economic utilisation through the sale of higher value export products to niche markets. Some developments to such systems are now being observed - with line caught fish, held on ice from the moment of capture being directed to premium export markets. This must be combined with improved environmental management to ensure that the Lake ecosystem achieves stability. Unfortunately at present there is little hope that this will happen in time.

Megapesca Home Page