Yohannes Geremew, 32, is a third generation fish retailer that owns Johonny Fish, which is located at Atikilt Tera, a place famous for its abundant fish shops. But they have decreased in number and can only be found scattered with no more than 10 shops, as Fortune was able to observe.
Yohannes, who mostly stocks Tilapia and catfish, a.k.a Koroso and Ambaza, respectively, from Bahir Dar and Arbaminch, laments that the demand for fish is declining through time.
“No need to use all of them as before,” he says showing his seven empty freezers out of nine lined up in his shop as evidence.
Other retailers, such as Biruk Waqjira, who has been in the fishing business for close to four decades, say that Yohannes’ case is an isolated incident. As a distributor of fish at Zeway and Addis Abeba, he has only seen fish consumption climb, especially in non-fasting seasons.
“Fish retailers are stretched all over the city, not just Atikilt Tera as it used to be,” he says adding that some distributors now give door to door service, simplifying transaction and eliminating the need to stock in large quantities.
Fish consumption traditionally spikes during the fasting season in Addis Abeba. Towns in fish producing areas such as Zeway, Arbaminch, and Bahir Dar though, have a fish-eating culture that encompasses non-fasting seasons while a similar outlook is developing in the capital.
“I am informed of the nutritional value of fish, not to mention that they are cheaper compared to meat of any kind,” said Petros Bahiru, a 35-year-old social anthropologist.
But prices are increasing in a restaurant that solely serves fish called Arbaminch Fish. Prices almost doubled from 70 Br since the beginning of this lent season in February.
This is because distributors from Arbaminch, Tekeze and Bahir Dar have hiked their prices, according to Kinfe Sahilu, manager of the restaurant that serves close to 400 people a day in the fasting seasons.
Over 70pc of the fishes consumed in Ethiopia are harvested from lakes such as Tana, Ziway, Abaya, Chamo and Hawassa. The rest are from artificial lakes like Finchaa and Tekeze, with over 180 species of withe the most consumed Cat Fish, Tilapia and Nile perch also called Nech Asa.
But there have been factors that led to the price hike by distributors. The first is a recurring trend, where distributors add 15 Br or more to the prices of fish once a fasting season approaches anticipating a spike in demand, according to the retailers that Fortune talked to.
The other factors are isolated to this year though. One is a result of long years of fishing practices that are distorting the ecology of the lakes and hurting production, according to Achamyelesh Duressa, an expert on fishery development and administration at Ministry of Livestock & Fisheries (MoLF).
The sort of fishing nets, since illegalized, that are used have very small space trapping smaller fish as well. This upsets the ecology by reducing the amount of Planetons that the catfish or the Tilapia feed on and leads to their decline.
To change this, MoLF is carrying out awareness creating campaigns in fish conservation.
“We are giving continuous training to fishers and traders and supporting them with necessary materials for fish farming,” Achamyelesh said, adding that the Ministry is focusing on areas that although have an abundant resource and do not have the necessary infrastructure in place to get the fish to the market.
Another reason for the decline of the fish supply is the spread of hyacinth weed, a.k.a. Emboch, in lakes such as Tana and Ziway. In the former, the weed has grown to cover over 5,000ha of weed as of last September.
Emboch is also a problem in Dembia, North Gonder, and Fogera and Dera, South Gonder. The weed blocks sunlight for the algae that is consumed by the fish at the lowest rung of the food chain. Also, the weed that dies and decomposes creates harmful toxins for the fish population.
That is not all.
Dereje Tewabe, director of Bahir Dar Fishery & Other Aquatic Life Research Centre, says that fish production at places such as Lake Tana also face “pollution as a result of dumping by commercial and non-commercial institutions, and settlement in areas close to where fish lay eggs.”
Dereje believes the only way out of this is fish farming, where fish are raised for sale or consumption in fish tanks or ponds.
Close to half of the fish harvested in Ethiopia – a nation that produced 22,3260tn in the first half of the current fiscal year – comes from the Amhara Regional State. Over 21,000tn of fish was harvested in the region in 2016, out of which 17,000tn were from Lake Tana, according to the Ministry’s figures.
Although the fish potential of the nation stands at 96,000tn, the amount that is harvested is close to a half of that. And the trend is not showing any significant growth. While 2016’s harvest stood at 50,149tn that of last year’s grew by less than 300tn. Exports also increased from 111.8tn in 2016 to 1,982tn the past year.
Three-quarters of all the fish consumed are harvested from lakes, while 19pc is from artificial dams, and the remaining from rivers and small water sources.
“Stringent rules and regulations should be implemented by MoLF to give time for the fishes to breed,” Mitiku Bonta, an assistant researcher on fishery at Battu Fishery Research Centre, told Fortune. “Fishers and residents close to the lakes must also take ownership, and be aware that over-fishing has long-term consequences.”