CHANS-Net scientists studying human and natural aspects of fishing in Africa

CHANS-Net scientists studying human and natural aspects of fishing in Africa

Nov. 7, 2012

Africa's Lake Victoria, the world’s second-largest body of freshwater, is in rapid transition. Conflict, progress, and population shifts all weigh on its waters. Impacts directly affect the basic food-security of the 40-million people inhabiting its basin.

Now, a two-year, $243,000 grant to CHANS-Net scientist Sarah Glaser, of the Virginia Insitute of Marine Science, will allow her and colleagues to continue their study of the interplay between the natural and human forces shaping the Lake Victoria ecosystem.

Glaser is collaborating with CHANS-Net members Cullen Hendrix, of the University of William and Mary, and Les Kaufman, of Boston University.

The exploratory project seeks to model the coupled dynamics of fisheries, armed conflict, and food
security in the Lake Victoria Basin, East Africa. In collaboration with regional fisheries organizations, they
aim to understand the relationships between fish catch and effort, conflict processes, and food security, as well as estimate fish abundance.

Between 18,000 and 14,000 years ago, Lake Victoria experienced periods of drying and expansion, facilitating an extraordinary evolution of more than 500 species of small cichlids. The cichlids became known as the Darwin’s finches of marine biologists.

According to Glaser, that natural development was interrupted during the 1950s when an experiment introduced the commercially lucrative Nile perch to the lake. That was followed by an introduction of a larger cichlid, the Nile tilapia. Each thrived.

“However, the complex ecology of the Lake Victoria system has become biologically simplified,” said Glaser.

The perch, which are caught, processed, and sent directly to markets in Europe, North Africa and elsewhere, are not consumed locally. One of the questions wants to answer Glaser involves the impact of exporting such a large portion of the commercial catch.

“I'm interested in food security,” she said. “What has been the effect upon those who live around the lake? Maybe nothing: maybe they’re eating other types of fish, or maybe they’re using the money earned from the fishery to buy chicken or other forms of protein."

Meanwhile, indicators are that the Nile perch fishery is in decline. Some experts fear a crash in the coming decades. Such an event would raise an entirely new set of questions.

Hendrix's focus is on ways the human population affects the lake. A significant development involved recent civil conflict in the north that caused several million people to move south toward the lake. Although long considered a “bread-basket” of Eastern Africa, as many as one in five area residents now are considered malnourished.

“What we’re trying to do is take all of this stuff, food prices, labor-market dynamics, violence in the region, and we’re trying to understand it through the framework of coupled natural and human systems analysis,“ Hendrix said. “Our goals are to understand the interrelationships of ecological processes and human social-political processes. If we do good science, good research, and work through the collaborative process, we can have a positive impact on natural-resource management that crucially can affect the lives and nutrition of more than 40 million people."