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Boom and bust on Lake Victoria: Q&A with author Mark Weston

Fishermen on Lake Victoria.

Fishermen on Lake Victoria. Image by James Anderson via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

  • In a new book, British author Mark Weston examines an environmental crisis on East Africa’s Lake Victoria that’s been a century in the making and stems from the introduction of the non-native Nile perch to the lake in the 1950s.
  • Weston lived on Ukerewe, the lake’s largest island, for two years, and relates the knock-on legacy of the fish’s introduction through the experiences of the people he met there.
  • The boom and bust of the fishery brought about a surging population, deforestation, declining land fertility, and increased pollution in the lake.
  • With Nile perch catches down precipitously and little else to sustain the economy of Ukerewe, residents struggle through poverty, lack of opportunity and a trickling exodus from the once-prosperous community, in search of a better life for themselves and their families.

It might be surprising to learn that, in a lake as large as Victoria, a single fish could shape so much of East Africa’s history, culture and, now, an uncertain future. In The Saviour Fish: Life and Death on Africa’s Greatest Lake, British author Mark Weston transports readers to a Tanzanian island where we see up close the potential and perils of humans’ fondness for tinkering with nature.

In the 1950s, the British introduced the Nile perch (Lates niloticus) to Victoria’s waters, a gamble designed to boost profits coming out of its colonies. The move would also, it was hoped, reinvigorate fisheries decimated by the deadly efficiency of the gill nets and other new technology that colonists had brought with them a few decades earlier.

Initially, the venture with the Nile perch seemed to be a success. Weston deftly guides us through the history that led to the decision while foreshadowing the eventual ramifications. Once the fish had gained a fin-hold in the lake’s ecosystem, its population grew, and fishers started to turn up ever-larger specimens in their nets. Soon, the Nile perch became known as “the savior fish.”

But that initial prosperity was just the first of a set of effects that rippled through the region like waves. As the boom brought more people to shoreside cities and towns in Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya, deforestation surged, and land fertility dwindled, and pollution in the lake spiked. The introduction of the Nile perch into the lake also helped to wipe out perhaps hundreds of species of cichlids, fish known for such rapid evolution that scientists estimate they were producing new species every few decades.

When the perch boom itself went bust, however, it left countless communities without the bedrock of their economies. One merchant told Weston on a recent trip to the lakeside city of Mwanza in Tanzania that, without fish, there’s no money.

A mature Nile perch grows to an average 1.21 to 1.37 meters (4 to 4.5 feet).
A mature Nile perch grows to an average 1.21 to 1.37 meters (4 to 4.5 feet). The British introduced the Nile perch to Victoria’s waters in the 1950s, a gamble designed to boost profits coming out of its colonies. Image by Global Environment Facility via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

It was in one such beleaguered community on the island of Ukerewe where Weston and his wife lived for two years. Weston touchingly opens a window into the lives of their friends and neighbors on Ukerewe as they grapple simultaneously with the aftermath of the plummeting perch catch and with an uncertain future. It’s a story that may sound all too common: Wisely managed natural resources like the lake’s once-abundant fish stocks are thrown off-kilter by human meddling and excess. And as is often also the case, the colonizers are gone along with the record harvests of the fish, leaving those with the least financial resources to struggle to find a way forward.

Mongabay caught up with Mark Weston ahead of the book’s release on April 29.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Image courtesy of Mark Weston.
Image courtesy of Mark Weston.

Mongabay: Did you go into the move to Tanzania with the idea of writing a book about your time there?

Mark Weston: I imagined it would be an interesting place to write about, but I didn’t know anything really about the fishing crisis and the environmental crisis before I went there. It was only once I started speaking to local people, including fishermen and their relatives and other people who depended on the fishing economy, that I realized this was quite a big deal. Then I did some more reading into it. That became an obvious subject for a book — to spread the word about it and give a voice to these people who are affected by what’s been happening. We’ve got lots of friends there now, so I’m personally invested in it and interested in how it goes because it’s affecting friends of ours in lots of different mostly negative ways.

Fishermen on Lake Victoria.
Fishers on Lake Victoria. Image by Hennie Stander via Unsplash.

Mongabay: How did the issues with the fisheries on the lake start?

Mark Weston: In the last 70-80 years, there have been two fishing booms. In the old days for the people on the lake, fishing was just a sideline. They were mostly farmers, and they fished occasionally, just using small traps off the beach. People said that you could catch fish with your hands, they were so plentiful.

Then, the British colonizers wanted to make some money out of the lake to sustain the colonial economy. They wanted to turn fishing into a commercial industry, so they introduced higher technology [such as] gill nets into the lake in the 1920s and ’30s, and brought in sail-propelled dhows, fishing boats, to turn it into something that would generate cash for the colonial economy. For a while, it did, and catch rates went up.

But then, because of these new technologies and overfishing, catch rates plummeted for the local native species to the lake, which were mostly things like catfish, lungfish, sardines, and blue-tailed tilapia. They were the popular ones for eating. At the same time, there were all these cichlids in the lake [that were] much smaller [and] not popular for eating. There were about 500 species of cichlids in the lake, which are little colorful fish with multiple feeding, protective and hunting strategies [and] are famous for their rapid evolution. The lake had become known as “Darwin’s dreampond” because there’s so many species of fish in it, and they’d evolved in only about 15,000 years. That’s like a new species appearing every three decades.

So the fishing crisis stopped generating cash for the local economy. Then the British thought of introducing an alien predator, the Nile perch, to the lake, which would in theory eat the cichlids that had survived the cull because nobody wanted to eat cichlids. [The Nile perch] can be 50 kilos [110 pounds] in size, [and it’s] a popular fish for eating. Against the advice of ecologists who worried about introducing an alien species into a complex tropical ecosystem, they introduced the Nile perch in 1954 in a couple of places around the lake.

Cichlids are known for such rapid evolution that scientists estimate they were producing new species every few decades.
Cichlids are known for such rapid evolution that scientists estimate they were producing new species every few decades. The introduction of the Nile perch into the lake played a part in wiping out perhaps hundreds of species of cichlids in Lake Victoria. Image by Kevin Bauman via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 1.0).

It didn’t appear in nets for really about 20 years until the late ’70s. Then, there was a huge boom, and by the mid-’90s, just in the Tanzanian bit of the lake, there were 200,000 [metric tons] of Nile perch being caught every year. Lots of jobs were created, 250,000 jobs just in the fishing industry, net-making and boat-making and mending and fishing itself. Then there are lots of other peripheral jobs: people who are selling stuff to the fisherman or building houses for the fishermen. There were lots of export earnings from Nile perch. It was exported to Asia and the Middle East and Europe. That was where the money came in. Airports were built to export it. Fish factories cropped up around the lake to process it and freeze it and export it. Lots of money was coming into the lake.

That precipitated the population boom around the lake, and people came from all parts of Africa to join the sort of gold rush. They were not all fishermen. Some of them were farmers. But they would have to cut down trees, so there’s lots of deforestation to build their houses, to build boats, to make cooking fires and smoke the sangara. The Nile perch is known as sangara in Swahili. As they cut down the trees, that made it easier for pollution to get into the lake because the soil wasn’t held together and was clear a path for chemicals from farms, pesticides, fertilizers [and] human sewage. There’s not much sanitation around the lake. Human sewage went into the lake. [Along with] overfishing, there’s also massive pollution. If you fly over it today, you see a lot of algal blooms, lots of massive green clouds, because of all these nutrients in the lake from farms and factories.

The economy’s in a lot of trouble all around the lake. It’s kind of that perfect storm: pollution, overfishing, deforestation, and this invasive species which has caused havoc.

City of Mwanza, Tanzania.
The city of Mwanza, Tanzania. The employment opportunities due to the abundance of Nile perch by the mid-’90s led to a population boom around Lake Victoria. Image by Jonathan Stonehouse via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0).

Mongabay: The irony there is that people considered the Nile perch, at least at one point, the ‘savior fish,’ hence the title of your book.

Mark Weston: It created so many jobs and got loads of people out of poverty because overpopulation was making farming less attractive. More children had inherited [land] from their parents, they split the land, so farming became less feasible. There wasn’t any industry around the lake.

It saved lives by creating so many jobs. Yeah, local people call it the savior fish.

Mongabay: What future do the communities around the lake face?

Mark Weston: When you go to Ukerewe, you can see that there was once some money. Quite a lot of buildings were started. Some of them have the ground floor finished and then struts coming out of the top for a future second floor that never happened.

[Now], there’s mass unemployment among everybody really, and lots of people are trying to leave the island to go to the mainland cities of Dar es Salam or Nairobi if they can get to Kenya. There is quite a big alcohol problem on the island. People tend to drink because they’re so frustrated that they can’t get any jobs. Those who are still carrying on fishing face measures to try and stop them because the government has finally realized this is a problem and is trying to restrict a lot of fishing so that stocks can recover.

Every time we go there, it seems to be a bit poorer than it was the previous time. There’s really not much money there and really little hope. All of the older adults who are in their 40s and 50s that we know don’t want their kids to get into fishing. They don’t really want their kids to stay on the island because they don’t see any future for them there.

People of Ukerewe bathe in Lake Victoria.
People of Ukerewe bathe in Lake Victoria. The poor economic condition of Ukerewe has led residents to struggle through poverty, lack of opportunity and a trickling exodus from the once-prosperous community. Image by noakaufman via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Mongabay: It sounds like you spent some time with fishers in the area, including some who are fishing illegally. Can you talk about those connections you made with people there?

Mark Weston: It didn’t used to be illegal. They’re trying to clamp down on nets with very small mesh sizes. That’s difficult, and people just ignore it. But the main people that are getting clamped down on are the people right at the bottom of that fishing food chain, who are beach seiners. Beach seining is where you have teams of men standing on the beach in two lines, and they drape this huge net out in the lake. It can be the size of a couple of football pitches, and the two teams pull it in. It takes about an hour. It’s really laborious, backbreaking work. When they pull it in, it scrapes the lake bed and pulls in lots of fish. That type of fishing catches a lot of breeding Nile perch, so the governments around the lake have tried to ban that. But they don’t provide any alternative income sources.

Our friend Hasani, [whom] I talk about a lot in the book, is an illegal fisherman. He goes out onto beaches around the island at night to try and escape these patrols. He says, “I’d love to do something other than this job. It doesn’t bring in very much money, and it’s illegal, and it’s affecting the lake. But the government has no jobs. There’s no alternative. There’s no retraining.” There’s nothing else he can do. He’s got four or five kids [to feed], depending on how many relatives’ kids he’s got around at any time. He says without doing this, he couldn’t feed them, so he risks getting his nets confiscated by patrols or going to prison or getting fined because he has no alternative. There’s lots of people like that on the island. They’re really the only ones that serious efforts are being made to clamp down [on] rather than boats who are catching bigger Nile perch or fish-processing factories who are trying to reduce the minimum legal size for catching a Nile perch, for example. They’re not being clamped down on as much as the ones who are the easiest to clamp down on, who are the poorest.

Illegal Nile perch brought over by Hamisi.
Illegal Nile perch brought over by Hamisi. Some illegal fishers in Ukerewe risk getting their nets confiscated by patrols or going to prison or getting fined because they have no alternative. Image courtesy of Mark Weston.

Mongabay: It does seem that people like Hasani don’t have much choice if they want to look after their families.

Mark Weston: If you haven’t got much food, you’re more vulnerable to diseases — malaria, typhoid, cholera — which are pretty rampant, and your kids are not going to make it. So you fish illegally, thereby imperiling the long-term future in order to save your kids and your family in the short term. They don’t have the luxury of thinking long term.

Mongabay: How else are people on the island dealing with the shortage of opportunities?

Mark Weston: They try other things on the island, like hawking or setting up shops, although they generally don’t really last very long because there are no customers. When I was there in March, I went into the market. I [spoke with] a woman who has a market stall there, and she says, “We depend on fishing. And when there are no fish, there’s no money in circulation. And when there’s no money, we have no business.”

Everything depends on the fisherman catching fish. When they’re not catching fish, either because they’re not allowed to, or because there aren’t so many fish as there used to be, which is also the case, all the businesses suffer. Lots of people I know have left the island and tried to get work in Dar es Salam, which is the biggest city [in Tanzania], or Mwanza, which is the biggest lakeshore city. But there’s not much work there either, especially in Mwanza, because that was quite heavily dependent on fishing.

Some try to go to other places to do farming and things like that, which is another last resort because it’s difficult farming, especially with climate change around the lake. It’s become a bit of a dust bowl around the Mwanza area because of overgrazing and things like that. So farming is quite difficult as well.

People of Ukerewe have been leaving the island to bigger cities in search of employment.
People from Ukerewe have been leaving the island to bigger cities in search of employment. Image by Marc Veraart via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0).

Mongabay: Are the government restrictions benefiting the lake ecologically?

Mark Weston: They may be. There are some signs that cichlids are recovering, for example. Something like 200 or more species went extinct, but some of them have started to recover. That’s partly because there aren’t so many Nile perch around to eat them or to compete with them for food, but it may also be because of these clampdowns on these beach seiners or other types of fishing. The data is really dodgy. Catch sizes have still gone right down, I think, but the stocks of fish in the lake may be stabilizing. It’s difficult to know. But because there are so many more fishermen than there used to be, they’re catching fewer fish per fisherman anyway. When I was in the big fish market the other day in Mwanza, they were saying in the last five years the price of Nile perch has gone up I think five times, and that’s because of scarcity.

Mongabay: What else could be done to address the decline of the fishing industry?

Mark Weston: They could have fishing seasons, or they could have reserves in the lake where there’s no fishing and allow it in other areas. What they haven’t really done is ask the fishermen what they think should be done. I think there’s evidence in other parts of the world that, if you ask local populations how they can conserve their endangered species, then they provide solutions. They get on board with solutions that you’re proposing or suggest changes to solutions. But that hasn’t happened so far around the lake. It’s been directives from distant governments, telling local people what’s best for them and what to do, and therefore, there hasn’t been much engagement among local people.

Lake Victoria’s fishery used to be brilliantly managed before the colonizers came along. Occasional fishing would catch loads of fish using not very destructive techniques. People would agree on when the fishing seasons could happen and where in the lake or where off the island people could fish. That hasn’t happened for 80 years. But you could go back to involving local people in the decision-making and empowering them to protect their children’s futures basically, as well as trying to provide jobs in other areas.

Fishers on Lake Victoria, Tanzania.
Fishers on Lake Victoria, Tanzania. There’s a scarcity of Nile perch in the lake now, and, because there are so many more fishermen than there used to be, they’re catching fewer fish per fisherman. Image by Soaring Flamingo via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0).

Mongabay: What about the education of children these days? Is that seen as more of a priority today?

Mark Weston: Certainly it is by parents. They spend a lot of effort getting their kids into school and buying stationery and uniforms for them, which they can barely afford yet. They’re desperate for their kids to be educated, especially on the islands, so that they don’t end up becoming fishermen and farmers like themselves. The governments of three lakeside countries have got enrollment in education up quite a lot in recent years. But the Tanzanian education system seems to be all about enrollment in schools, rather than any actual quality in schools, hence, projects like my wife’s project where they’re trying to modernize teaching methods.

Mongabay: How was your wife’s experience with her project teaching teacher trainers at a local college? Did you feel that it made a difference?

Mark Weston: Not in the college, no, because the teacher trainers there weren’t that interested in improving their skills. Again, it’s another project that had been imposed on them by the ministry of education without any consultation. The teacher trainers who were there already think they’re well-trained and knowledgeable, and they find this foreign person coming to improve their teaching skills — they weren’t very receptive to it. There’s obviously potential for it to make a difference because a teacher trainer has a massive class size of 100-200 people. If you can just get one or two of these teacher trainers to use more participatory, creative teaching approaches and encourage more useful skills in the kids, those one or two trainers are going to reach lots of teachers. And then those teachers going to reach lots of kids. You can make quite a big difference just by converting one or two. But it didn’t make the impact that was hoped for it from the project.

Mongabay: Did you find things to be hopeful about living on the island?

Mark Weston: You see hope in some of the kids who are really keen to study, want to go to school and do their homework well. They have these hopes. It’s just whether they will be realized, and that will probably involve them getting off the island and needing Tanzania as a whole to develop quickly. Tanzania has got assets that give it the potential to do better in the future, and to meet the needs of its very fast-growing population. Yeah, there’s that hope, but I wouldn’t say [there] is any hope for Ukerewe the island itself, unless you get tourism. It’s a beautiful island. There’s potential. It’s within a couple of hours of the Serengeti, so that might be an option. I’d recommend it to anyone who’s thinking of visiting Tanzania. It’s lovely, and the people are lovely.

Peter from Ukerewe wearing mud glasses.
Peter from Ukerewe wearing mud goggles. “You see hope in some of the kids who are really keen to study, want to go to school and do their homework well. They have these hopes,” says Weston. Image courtesy of Mark Weston.

Banner image: Fishermen on Lake Victoria. Image by James Anderson via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

John Cannon is a staff features writer with Mongabay. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon

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