I’m not a huge fan of fish—I never liked the taste.
And so it came as a surprise to me that a pervasive source of military conflict, poverty, and hunger in East Africa lies beneath the very bread crumbs of my half-eaten fish fillet.
In the 1960s, a nonnative fish species was introduced to Lake Victoria. With a maximum length of six feet and weight of up to 440 pounds, the Nile perch is the ideal cash crop and has become the second most imported freshwater fish in the European Union.
Although an economic staple in the fishing industry, the Nile perch’s presence has proven ecologically destructive. Approximately 400 unique species of cichlids, a tropical fish, have evolved in Lake Victoria over the last 14,000 years. Since the introduction of the Nile perch, however, as many as 200 species of cichlids have gone extinct. According to Les Kaufman, a professor of biology at BU, it’s “the greatest vertebrate mass extinction in recorded history.”
Whereas the Nile perch remains a popular dish in Europe, Israel and Australia, Tanzanian citizens who live around the lake suffer greatly from starvation and poverty. Foreign-owned processing plants reap a majority of the industry’s profit, while the local people have no choice but to eat maggot-infested fish scraps and skeletons.
When a fisherman dies on the job, his wife becomes a prostitute to support her family, and orphaned children often adopt drug addictions to cope with poverty. A subsequent humanitarian crisis has emerged in Tanzania, a country where 5.6 percent of the population is infected with HIV.
What’s worse? The same Russian cargo planes that transport Nile perch to Europe have been known to carry weapons to Africa, further fueling the continent’s many wars and armed conflicts.
In the 2004 documentary Darwin’s Nightmare, a Tanzanian man admits that he prefers war over peace because as a soldier, war provides a steady income as opposed to the salary of a fisherman.
We’re quick to call Africa “war-torn” as if its people are incapable of keeping peace. Out of ignorance, I always assumed that most wars in Africa were caused by differences in religion and ethnicity. Conflict in the Lake Victoria region, however, is the byproduct of economic and environmental dynamics, all of which revolve around some fish that didn’t belong there in the first place.
As a film major with little knowledge of international affairs, I’m not asking you to donate to a specific cause or petition the government (although that would be great if you do the right research), and I’m definitely not asking you to stop eating fish. What I do want you to consider is the interesting, complicated, and fragile relationship that exists between an ecosystem and its people, and how if you teach a man to fish, he is still susceptible to political exploitation and injustice.