Kalokol fish-landing bay in Kenya's northwestern Turkana region is a hive of activity when the fish come in: Women fishmongers jostle for bargains as they seek to buy smaller fish to sell at the local market, while waiting middlemen rush to load the best fish into their vehicles.
"There is no storage for the fish so they [the fishermen] wait to sell the fish to brokers… The fishermen handle the fish just up to the shore," James Eregor, a Lake Turkana boat operator, told IRIN.
Many of the brokers, who are reluctant to have their photos taken, have come up from Kitale, about 300km to the south - a journey that can take days due to the poor state of the road, but profits can be high given that a plate of fish in a typical Nairobi restaurant sells for the equivalent of US$4-6.
"We sell 1kg of fish at 40 or 50 shillings [48-60 US cents]. Nile Perch is more expensive [about $1.68 per kg], but the bulk buyers make a lot more money," said David Koiya, a fisherman. "If there was a fish market and cold storage facilities and a good road, then the local fishing population would benefit."
The lack of such facilities means fishermen on Lake Turkana are forced to dispose of their catch promptly.
"The fish we catch here is just for the stomach, it is not for profit. If this fish is not sold today, we will throw it into the bush," fisherman Paul Lopotio told IRIN.
Fishing costs are considerable. "A net is used in the lake for about a month before it is replaced. Then I pay other people who help me to fish; I buy fuel for the boat and I also pay the owner of the fishing boat," explained Lopotio.
"When it is windy, we may even catch no fish and the children end up sleeping hungry. But there is nothing else for us to do here; fish is the staple food and it helps us to buy other foods.
"When it rains, drying the fish under the sun in the local market also becomes difficult and the fish rot."
The situation of fishermen in Kalokol is replicated across Lake Turkana. At Eleyi beach, for example, fisherman Michael Lokotor said: "Before there was a fish market but it was closed five years ago. For now, we dry the fish in the sun before selling them to a wholesale buyer who comes by boat from Kalokol."
Poor roads in the Turkana region, characteristic of much of the northern Kenya region, mean a lack of access to markets in a region where livelihood opportunities are limited and poverty rife.
Well-to-do fish buyers from Nairobi and other urban centres with refrigerated trucks benefit most from the catch.
"Sometimes it takes two weeks to fill the truck, which carries five tons of fish. Some of the fish is brought here by car or 'boda boda' (motorbike taxi)," said John*, the driver of a refrigerated truck who had set up camp in Kalokol.
Falling water levels
Fishing in Lake Turkana is becoming more of a challenge as water levels in the lake are falling due to perennial drought, as well as evaporation and siltation, according to the Kenya's Fisheries Ministry.
|The fish we catch here is just for the stomach, it is not for profit. If this fish is not sold today, we will throw it into the bush|
Environmentalists warned recently that ongoing damming activities on the River Omo, the main river supplying Lake Turkana, could adversely affect water levels and consequently the livelihoods of thousands dependent on the lake. Lake Turkana produces about 200,000 tons of fish annually.
According to Godfrey Monor, director of fisheries in the Fisheries Ministry, poor infrastructure and insecurity have hampered efforts to provide market access to fishermen, but he said things were improving: "There are initiatives to introduce solar [fish] driers, and fishermen are also being sensitized on how to produce sun-dried salted fish," he said.
A private partnership between Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo is expected to provide a ready market for the sun-dried salted fish.
"There is also a private developer who is putting up a cold storage facility in Lodwar [main town in the region]," said Monor, adding that the government is also helping to initiate irrigation schemes around the lake to help fishermen to diversify their income streams.
*not a real name