Is the Nile perch the next victim of the Chinese insatiable appetite for fish maw?

Jessy Lugya struggles to lift an individual of Nile perch (Lates niloticus) on a research vessel of the National Fisheries Resources Research Institute (NaFIRRI), Uganda

Since the 1980s when commercial exploitation of the Nile perch in Lake Victoria started, its fillets have been the premium product whose main market is in the European Union. Since 2017, the swim bladder of the Nile perch has emerged as a new product offering an unexpected resource to fishers, fish traders and fish processors. The swim bladder, market in China as fish maw has developed suddenly, changing the marketing dynamics of the Nile perch. In Uganda, Nile perch individuals without the swim bladder may not make it to fish processing industries. It’s difficult for local people, with no interest in the swim bladder to obtain fish for home consumption.

Although the fish maw business is emerging on Lake Victoria, it has been ongoing for along time. The Chinese value the fish maw for healing heart and lung diseases. As a result, fish maw are very expensive and highly valued and are in some cases considered to be the aquatic cocaine. The appetite for fish maw by Chinese is not without shortcomings. Traditionally, the Chinese obtained the fish maw from a fish species native at home, the Chinese bahaba (Bahaba taipingensis). Overfishing and insatiable appetite nearly drove the Bahaba to extinction and they started outsourcing the fish maw from elsewhere. The main target was the Totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi), found in Mexico. The demand for fish maw in China developed the Totoaba’s fishery leading to overfishing. The fishery was hunted to an extent that even closures promoted by the government have not been enough to allow a recovery. The species is now critically endangered meaning that they require urgent conservation action.

Under which circumstances would the fish maw business endanger the Nile perch? Evolutionary, the Nile perch is much like the Chinese Bahaba and the Totoaba. All are large fish species growing to about 2m in length. The Nile perch can acquire a maximum of 200 kg, about two times the two species. From perspective, the decline of the Chinese Bahaba and the Totoaba required about three decades of poorly managed fishing using efficient fish gears and equipment. The Nile perch fishery is already facing high fishing pressure and the demand for swim bladder may make it worse if fishing is not properly regulated. By this estimate, the Nile perch could be critically endangered by 2050 at least in Lake Victoria.

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