By Hillary Smith, PhD candidate in the Marine Science and Conservation program

Lake Victoria is well known for a host of different accolades. By size, Lake Victoria is Africa’s largest lake, the world’s largest tropical lake and the world’s 2nd largest lake (after Lake Superior). Ecologically, the lake is originally home to more than 500 species of cichlid fish, almost all of which are endemic (i.e. found nowhere else). The lake’s unique ecological diversity has earned it a reputation as one of evolutions greatest success stories, with many parallels drawn between the fish diversity and endemism of Africa’s great lakes (of which Lake Victoria is one) and the Galapagos finches described by Darwin. The lake’s vast size and ecological diversity also make it one of the most productive inland fisheries in the world, and therefore an important source of food security, employment and economic activity for the region.

Small-scale fishing boats on Ukerewe island, Lake Victoria

More recently, Lake Victoria is renowned for a host of more ominous attributes. With the introduction of the invasive Nile perch in the 1950’s, the lake is increasingly known as a site of a mass extinction: the predatory Nile perch consumed native species leading to the extinction of most of the lakes 500 endemic fish species. In addition to these dramatic ecological changes, Nile perch brought significant changes to the lake’s economy. In my recent interview with a longstanding fisher from the region, he described the rise of the Nile perch as akin to a gold rush; attracted to the fast cash that was possible in the fishing, processing and export of Nile perch to European markets, different ethnic groups and nationalities travelled to Lake Victoria for the first time—many of them not traditionally fishers at all. Nile perch landing sites rapidly emerged as islands of wealth in the region and were named accordingly: Las Vegas, Paris, and Los Angeles (Mr. Majura Myingu, personal comment).

Globalization of Lake Victoria’s fish trade, linking African Nile perch filets to European dinner tables, brought an influx of outsiders and wealth and along with it a breakdown of many long-standing norms. Professor Paul Onyongo, an expert on Lake Victoria at the University of Dar es Salaam, explains how this period witnessed a shift; from fishing as a subsistence and community based activity to a commercial, for profit endeavor. With increasing commodification of fish came erosion of long-standing norms—traditionally the fishing season was marked with communal ceremonies and respective closures, fish catch was redistributed among the community, and regulations existed on appropriate fishing gear and methods. The booming export market for Nile perch and influx of new comers brought new practices: exporting catch abroad, fishing for profit, year-round fishing, more destructive gear types, and exploitative working conditions for fish workers, especially women. While other troubling dynamics of globalization and Nile perch are the theme of the controversial documentary Darwin’s Nightmare, on my recent trip to the Tanzanian shores of Lake Victoria I was specifically concerned with how these political-economic and ecological shifts in the region effected gender relations in the sector and the livelihoods of women in small-scale fisheries.

This brings us to another disturbing statistic about the lake; the region has some of the highest rates of HIV infection. With few other economic opportunities for women in the region many seek employment in the fish trade, typically in the post-harvest sector (i.e. unloading, processing and marketing fish). However, in order to work and access fish women are often required to have sex with fishermen. This practice is known as trading fish-for-sex: when fishermen bring their catch to shore early in the morning women are waiting for the opportunity to unload fish. Fishermen have the power to pick which woman will unload their catch, and in return for this work, they pay the women with a portion of the fish—how much fish is fair payment is at the fisher’s discretion. Women use the payment of fish for their own processing businesses, where they dry and fry fish for resale as a final product. To get work unloading fish and receive a portion of the catch for their processing businesses, women must pay the fishermen (equivalent of 4 USD) for the right to work for them in addition to having sex with them. This exploitative process is a daily transaction; many women I spoke to confided that this relationship only guarantees them work for the day—they must establish a new relationship with a different fisher each day. This practice has led to high rates of sexually transmitted infections as well as gender-based violence along the shores of Lake Victoria.

While awareness of the risks of trading fish-for-sex is growing, I think it’s important to understand the existence of these practices within their historical context. To discuss the human rights violations and health risks of trading fish-for-sex without understanding the linked dynamics of introduced species, colonization and globalization risks interpreting fish-for-sex as a long-standing tradition. This assumption easily aligns with broader narratives of the backwards practices of non-western cultures. Yet, trading fish-for-sex is not a longstanding tradition of the ethnic groups of the lake region in Tanzania—it is an outcome of the political economic and ecological conditions that precipitated the breakdown of traditional fishing practices that once regulated subsistence fishing practices.

Tracing the breakdown of traditional fishing norms brings us back to colonization. The endemic cichlid species of Lake Victoria were the traditional food source and subject of fishing effort for people from the lake region. However, colonial fisheries officers regarded these subsistence fishing activities as trifling and the small cichlid species as “trash fish”. Colonial fisheries officers discussed what profitable activities they could garner from such small fish, and briefly entertained converting them to industrial fertilizers [1]. However, their goal was to develop a profitable fishing industry for the colonies and began experimenting with more lucrative species in the great lakes as early as the 1920’s. These experiments eventually led to the introduction and proliferation of invasive species in Lake Victoria (circa 1950) at the expense of endemic cichlids that were important to local food security and fishing livelihoods. These practices however, along with the unique biodiversity of the lake, were accorded little value in the eyes of the colonial state [1].

Endemic cichlid fish known locally as dagaa. The fish are about 1 inch in length.

Returning now to the present, the relative value of endemic and introduced species continues along neo-colonial and classed lines. Nile perch filets are destined for export markets (local people largely cannot afford it), and the processing is highly regulated and industrialized. One United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization representative I met told me if you walk into a Nile perch processing facility in Tanzania you could eat straight off the floor—the facilities are immaculate and up to the highest international standards. The Nile perch industry employs some women, but most labor in the informal small-scale fishing sector working with what native species are left in the lake (which are only a few). The colonial perception of these local species as “trash fish” largely persists, with the trade, processing and consumption of these fish regarded as the purview of poor people. Consequently, women are largely employed in the post-harvest processing of lower-status cichlid fish whereas men mostly control the Nile perch industry. While some women operate successful fish marketing and processing businesses and have their own employees, most are independent informal operators working in precarious conditions and subject to exploitative terms for their labor.

It goes without saying, that trading fish-for-sex amounts to gender based violence, unsafe working

An informal fish processor drying native cichlid fish species at her home in Mwanza, Lake Victoria.

conditions, and exploitation of women’s labor*. However, my research will not focus on the details of trading fish-for-sex (which are documented elsewhere), but on ways that women are renegotiating, maneuvering and transforming their possibilities in the fishing sector. While women are often marginalized in the small-scale fishing sector, in Tanzania women are also at the forefront of fisheries reform—working to change fisheries governance and protect the rights of the most vulnerable fish workers as well as addressing sustainability issues. My research will document how women are shaping the governance reform process and how gender issues are represented and transformed in the sector through different actors’ efforts.

In my next blog, I will discuss the ways that women are organizing their labor and livelihoods to create safer working conditions and economic opportunities for themselves in the small-scale fishing sector. While efforts are just getting underway to address the huge gender-bias in small-scale fisheries science and policy, much of the emphasis so far has been on enumerating women’s labor and economic contributions to the sector or on documenting their relative marginalization. In addressing the huge gender gap in small-scale fisheries science and policy I believe it’s also vital to hold up stories of possibility and document the ways that fish workers are challenging and transforming the structural disadvantages they face and redefining gender relations.

Today’s blog was possible because of the generosity of many Tanzanian’s who took time to share their experiences and take on the history of this complicated and beautiful lake. Thank you to the scientists, fishers, NGO employees, and processors for sharing and working with me.

*This is to note that I consider trading fish-for-sex as separate from sex work where workers control the terms of their labor and have access to fair and safe working conditions.

[1] Pringle, Robert M. “The origins of the Nile perch in Lake Victoria.” BioScience 55.9 (2005): 780-787.