Some weeks ago, I was browsing the fish counter at Whole Foods when my eye was caught by the legend: "Lake Victoria Perch." It caught my eye because I, like many, am a sucker for that kind of specificity in a food description. Would you like mussels or Prince Edward Island mussels? Would you like sourdough bread or San Francisco sourdough? A strip steak or a New York strip? Ahh, the magic of the majuscular. It's been years since I worried about carrying my pocket guide to medically and morally acceptable fish. The rules for denizens of the briny deep and shallow have become too depressingly simple--no aquaculture, stick to wild-caught off the North Carolina coast except for Alaskan salmon and the odd halibut. But this, the perch, was freshwater and the name rang a bell.
Of course, I thought, Lake Victoria. Big lake, Africa, Stanley, Livingston, Queen Victoria. Lot of water over the dam since then--time to get caught up. So I Googled and found this, from the major importer of Lake Victoria perch:
"Rich in Omega-3 ... Lake Victoria Perch, from the clean, unspoiled waters of the second largest freshwater lake in the world ... is top of the wish list of quality conscious white filet consumers" (www.anovafood.com/page.asp? lAction=sitemap).
Well, Lake Victoria is famous for many things since the days of the British Empire, and unspoiled looms not large at all. The scientific literature is pretty clear about this, tending to titles like: "Catastrophic Change in Species-Rich Freshwater Ecosystems: The lessons of Lake Victoria," "A Review Of Mercury in Lake Victoria, East Africa: Implications for Human and Ecosystem Health." Other, less technical titles are blunter: "Lake Victoria: a sick giant."
Where the prose about Lake Victoria really gets blunt is in the reviews of the recent documentary film Darwin's Nightmare: "Darwin's Nightmare finds its most Brueghelian images at a sort of open-air factory, where ammonia-emitting, maggot-swarmed perch carcasses are dried and fried, repackaged as a local subsistence food." As we'll see, there's been an "improvement" in that particular circumstance.
The history of all this begins in about 1960, when the Nile perch (which, in the way of these things, isn't actually a perch) was introduced into Lake Victoria, a lake the size of Ireland with a teeming and complicated ecosystem. The perch population didn't explode until the late 1970s. The lake had supplied a wide variety of fish through the efforts of small-scale fisherman: about 12,000 canoes and 50,000 fisherman from the three countries that border the lake (Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania). The processing and trading of the fish was also handled by small-scale operators, most of them women. The lake was the main source of animal protein for the locals; what wasn't consumed fresh was smoked or sun-dried and sold inland. The Nile perch is a predator. It wiped out at least half the other species in the lake and decimated most of the rest. In 1981, less than 3,000 tons of perch were caught; by 1986, it was over 150,000 tons, and in 1993 it was 363,000 tons. It now constituted 80 percent of the biomass of the lake.
In the initial phase, ecological concerns aside, the increase in catch was a great economic boon to the local fishing industry. The tipping point came in the 1980s, when global capital stuck its oar in. Processing factories were built around the lake (more than 35 of them), processing the perch (as well as the only other two fish caught in any numbers in the lake, tilapia and a small sardine processed into fishmeal) for export to the First World. And, of course, the money flow changed; the European, Asian and Israeli factory owners began to control the fish economy in the three countries, and the bulk of the catch was exported. As both riches and nutrition flowed out, the nutritional welfare of the region suffered.
The industrialization of the fishing industry, and its conversion to a major export industry, has filtered down to fishing itself. Motorizing fishing boats has decreased the employment opportunities and de-localized the formerly community-based fisherman.
New subsidiary businesses are thriving. European pilots fly fresh fillets daily to Europe, Israel and the United States. While fishing employment has decreased due to mechanization, men are brought in to work in the factories. Prostitution (and STDs, including AIDS), crime and weapons smuggling have also become a vital part of the new economy. Those planes that fly out full of fillet often come back with crates of weapons to supply the continent's wars.
And that improvement I mentioned? Well, industrialization has made the filleting much more efficient, and the skeletons can now be efficiently processed into animal feed, rather than entering the local economy. No doubt it ends up feeding the fish at some fish farm far away.
The local economies, ruined in many ways by the global fish market, are dependent on them. During periodic health bans on the fish by the EU, local processing (by the otherwise unemployed women who used to do it) cannot keep up with either supply or demand, as the old processing areas have been demolished. The fish export business has brought money into the countries bordering the lake, but the money hasn't ended up in the pockets of the local communities. Instead of being a good local source of protein, fish has become too expensive for the locals to buy.
Nature may also intervene; the lake is being overfished and is heavily polluted. The perch catch is getting smaller, as are the perch. Soon, the big multi-nationals, like Annova Foods of the Netherlands, whose marketing pitch I quoted above, may pull out. But they'll leave the old infrastructure of locally based marketing destroyed.
Importer Annova says: "Lake Victoria Perch is top of the wish list of quality conscious white filet consumers." As one of those consumers, I'll think I'll keep Lake Victoria Perch off my wish list.