The missing 't'

Seeking an easy way to prepare fish at home, many families in the developed world turn to fish fillets. Grilled, sautéed or fried, the fish is ready to eat in minutes, having been pre-scaled, pre-gutted, deboned and pre-packaged before it arrives at the local supermarkets. But what happens to those fish scraps that are stripped away?

Essam Yassin Mohammed's picture
Blog by
13 July 2010

Sub Saharan African woman drying fish. Photo: Patrick Dugan via WorldFish on Flickr

Seeking an easy way to prepare fish at home, many families in the developed world turn to fish fillets. Grilled, sautéed or fried, the fish is ready to eat in minutes, having been pre-scaled, pre-gutted, deboned and pre-packaged before it arrives at the local supermarkets. But what happens to those fish scraps that are stripped away?

In Uganda, a landlocked east African country hit by fish scarcity, these scraps or fish bones are called fille, after the late musician Philly Lutaya, whose bony frame shocked Ugandans in the early 1990s when he publicly announced that he was dying of AIDS. While fillets – with a ‘t’ – are exported for consumption in the rich North, fille – the fish bones without a ‘t’ – are left for the locals to scavenge on.

Fisheries provide approximately 20 per cent of the total animal protein intake of the approximately 607 million inhabitants of sub-Saharan Africa. Substituting fish for meat would enable a rapid increase in herds. Additionally, fish as an export commodity could enable higher economic returns and play a major role in increasing foreign currency reserves. This would allow a greater sense of overall food security by assuring funds to import food when needed.

Annual food supply per capita from fish and fishery products has been increasing in developing countries as a whole except in sub-Saharan Africa, as can be seen in the diagram below. A decreasing per capita food supply certainly exacerbates food insecurity and exposes the most vulnerable sections of the population to several risks and shocks such as food shortages and reduced adaptive capacity to climate change.

Annual per capita food supply from fish and fishery products
Source: Data extracted from World Resource Institute database; analyzed by author
 

The current fish scarcity in sub- Saharan Africa can either be attributed to export-oriented fisheries development strategies or unsustainable fishing activity which has led to depletion of fish stocks. In Uganda fish scarcity has reduced the local people to eating fish bones or ‘fille’. This is mainly aggravated by the export-oriented fisheries development strategy adopted by the Ugandan government. The country earns about $150 million annually from fish exports alone. Ideally this income should trickle down to fishing communities and be invested in development projects that provide basic services and social amenities aimed at improving the livelihood of vulnerable sections of society.

Putting aside the argument on whether export-oriented fisheries development strategies are fair and equitable, uncontrolled fishing practices stimulated by lucrative earnings from fish export can lead to a phenomenon called ‘pirate fishing’. Pirate or illegal fishing can potentially threaten the health and resilience of fisheries in the country, which seriously affects local livelihoods.

How can the missing t be supplemented?

Small-scale fishery, in addition to being environmentally sustainable, is usually the main source of local fish consumption. For example, in Eritrea – another east African nation – 90 per cent of fish consumed locally is supplied by artisanal or small-scale fisheries. This sector, which is usually considered to be a marginal or unprofitable activity, should therefore be promoted. Promoting artisanal or small-scale fisheries could potentially increase the per capita food supply and narrow down the acute animal protein gap the region is facing.

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