Lake Victoria offers an iconic image of biodiversity decline. The British colonial authorities’ 1960 introduction of Nile perch (Lates niloticus) set in motion the extinction of over 300 cichlid species, and the staggering proliferation of fishing pressure, fish harvests, and exports throughout the 1980s and 90s (1). Though the mass extinction of cichlids marks one of the largest extinction events in modern time, Nile perch in Lake Victoria has also been held up as a counterexample to arguments for ecosystem services; in this case, destruction of biodiversity has been hugely profitable (2). At least, that is, while fish yields climbed. More recently, trends in fish catches increasingly suggest that the Lake Victoria fishery has peaked and that catch is declining despite the same levels of effort (3).

Working with collaborators at the University of California, Berkeley, the Kenyan Ministry of Fisheries Development, and the Kenya Medical Research Institute, my research aims to better understand the ramifications of this current changes in the fishery on the livelihoods and health of people living around the fishery, particularly on Mfangano Island in Kenya. While Lake Victoria inspires particular narratives, both ecologically – cichlid decline and rising fishing pressure – and for human health – high rates of HIV/AIDS and food insecurity – the issues faced around Lake Victoria have analogs both to other African fisheries and issues of resource access elsewhere. Though our research study has just begun, preliminary work makes clear that what is understood about how livelihoods and food sovereignty affect each other has only just started to cursorily understand the non-linearities and complexities that describe the ways in which the fishery, access to it, and human health interact.

As conservation scientists surely appreciate, the consequences for the ecosystem of increased harvest of Nile perch are not straightforward, or merely related to fish catch. Changes in species composition and effects down the food chain have also been felt across Lake Victoria. And, the distribution of costs and consequences to changes in yield and species composition, similarly to the distribution of financial gains, is felt quite differently by different groups of people. In particular, my research focuses on fishers and their families. For people that live on the shores of a lake that is the source of millions of kilos of fish, substantial nutritional deficiencies persist; rates of stunting, indicative of chronic under-nutrition, persist at around 40% (4). In response to changes in fish prices, availability, and species composition, people who live around the lake shift livelihoods among various species, and often eat only undersized fish that sell for a lower price and are not accepted by regional fish packing plants. Despite efforts to democratize fishery management through a co-management system, efforts to close the fishery and limit catch sizes are often tacitly unenforced or lifted in response to regional food shortages. 

In this system, we will work alongside the Ministry of Fisheries Development to tabulate fish yield and price data, and carry out a longitudinal survey of households. In conjunction with macro level changes in fish availability, we aim to explore household livelihoods, access to fish, and the nutritional consequences of limits to that access. In addition to collecting data on perceptions of access to the fishery and fish availability, we will collect information on fishers’ time, money and effort devoted to fishing, household fish consumption, and child nutrition (both growth and cognitive development).

As we explore biodiversity, health and livelihoods in the context of a collapse in biodiversity and changing availability of fish stocks, we hope to better understand the ways in which the health of the ecosystem affects the health of those living around it through the interactions of food security, livelihoods, and resource access.

Katie Fiorella is an MPH Student (Epidemiology) and PhD Candidate (Environmental Science, Policy & Management) at the University of California, Berkeley.

References

(1) F. Witte et al., The Destruction of an Endemic Species Flock - Quantitative Data on the Decline of the Haplochromine Cichlids of Lake Victoria. Environmental Biology of Fishes 34, 1 (May, 1992).
(2)  D. J. McCauley. 2006 Selling out on nature. Nature, 443, 27.
(3) J. S. Balirwa, Ecological, environmental and socioeconomic aspects of the Lake Victoria's introduced Nile perch fishery in relation to the native fisheries and the species culture potential: lessons to learn. African Journal of Ecology ,45, 120 (Jun, 2007).
(4) Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) and ICF Macro. (KNBS and ICF Macro, Calverton, Maryland, 2010).