Problems of Place: Following the Fish

Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It opens, “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.” Growing up in Missoula, Montana, where his story takes place, it’s safe to say the tenor rings true. Enmeshed in the concept of fishing are myriad existential experiences. Parents teach their children to throw a line and tie a fly, the freedom and volatility of a river matches many teenage temperaments, and the solitude of fishing can anchor a journey of self-discovery. “I sat there and forgot and forgot, until what remained was the river that went by,” offers Maclean in a meditation, “and I who watched.”

My academic career as a historian of East Africa brought me far away from home. Perhaps because Montana famously claims to have more cattle than humans, I became curious about the idea of “overpopulation” in African countries. While doing fieldwork along the Tanzanian coast, I heard a common refrain—there are too many people, that is why there are no fish. Perhaps because of that same Montana upbringing, I felt compelled to follow the fish as part of the story of population.

As with many wholesome endeavors, those participating in the art of fishing often preoccupy themselves with its disrupters. In Montana, those disrupters are often tourists, “uneducated” fisherfolk, and climate change. In Tanzania, fishermen bemoan the plethora of young boys who drop out of school and, with no other viable employment, start to fish to scrape out a living. Few were concerned with the effects of tourism on local fish populations, but foreigners of course bear some blame.


In 2004, Hubert Sauper directed a documentary titled Darwin’s Nightmare. The film laments the loss of native species in Tanzania’s Lake Victoria due to the introduction of predatory Nile perch for European supermarkets. The documentary is captivating and raises concerns that affect the daily lives of Tanzanians living and working in the area. Fish is an important dietary component for many locals. When asked by the filmmakers if they were eating the fish they were catching, many interlocutors said no. Global markets, and the spicy addition of a potential illicit arms trade, ruined the ecosystem and a vital food source for local people.

If capitalism and overpopulation are the reasons for Tanzania’s faltering fish counts, there is no viable solution. The United Nations estimates that 80% of world population growth between now and the end of the century will occur in Africa. And that growth is unlikely to change the have and have-nots of the world economic system. Like most things in life, however, the story of Tanzania’s fish and fisherfolk is not that simple. I’ll leave the more detailed ecological explanations to the scientists, but want to highlight that the search for blame and scapegoating belies the underlying complexities.

Jennifer Lee Johnson, a scholar of East African fisheries, has a similar approach to her research, focusing “analytic attention on emergence and not emergency, on persistence and transformation rather than collapse and extinction.” During her fieldwork in the Lake Victoria region, Johnson notes that local languages have many different words for food and fish. Most importantly, local vernacular refers to fish in edible form as sauce. The producers of Darwin’s Nightmare never asked the locals if they ate “sauce,” which Johnson notes many of them continue to do.

A similar miscommunication happens along the coast. Nearly all of my respondents started off blaming overpopulation, particularly among youth, as the cause for their fish woes, but when I pressed them further, the source of the problem changed. With the influx of malaria campaigns, fishermen have begun to use bed nets as fishing nets. Bed nets have much smaller holes than typical fishing nets, so immature fish get swept up as much as fully-grown fish, depleting the population. In the short term, however, those small fish are sold at the market as a cheap source of protein for those who can’t often afford it.


With the increasing prevalence of freezers, fishermen are also able to stockpile fish and transport them to the most favorable markets. The lack of “fresh fish” was a constant gripe among wives and mothers who cook for their families, but when I asked them if they’d prefer to not have freezers, the conversation stalled. Probing questions invite more productive discussion on what can be done to remedy the problem of fishing “disruptors,” and necessarily include whether those solutions outweigh the benefits of malaria campaigns, technological advancement, better nutrition, and employed youth. Our goal as scholars is to help shine light on the complexities to the best of our ability, which doesn’t always mean we will completely understand the multiple valences of people, fishing, and place. “At sunrise everything is luminous but not clear […]” Maclean observed.

In Montana, when conservationists pitch catch-and-release laws, those who fish for food debate the “true” meaning of living off the land and “proper” relationships between humans, animals, and the environment. When tourists take over the rivers, should we be happy to share our natural wonders and for the jobs that come with it, or upset about the trespassers? The contentious nature of those debates signals another similarity between religion and fishing. When it comes to fishing and water management, we’re often quick to assign blame to those who disrupt and trespass on nature’s opus. Perhaps we need to forgive their trespasses in order to truly understand them.