(Xinhua) -- Researchers working around Kenya’s Lake
Victoria, a fishing community where locals battle high rates of
disease and a depleted fish stock, have found that human illness
exacerbates unsustainable fishing practices.
Before this study, published Monday in
the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, it
has been known that a toxic environment is known to create
health problems for people.
While challenging the long-held
assumption in environmental research that human disease provides
a natural check to environmental exploitation and demonstrates a
new way that poor human health may harm the environment, the
study suggests that quality healthcare could have benefits
beyond human populations and help people manage their
environment and the sustainability of those resources.
“Studies have suggested people will
spend less time on their livelihoods when they are sick, but
we didn’t see that trend in our study. Instead, we saw a
shift toward more destructive fishing methods when people
were ill,” said Kathryn Fiorella, the lead author who was a
doctoral student in the lab of professor Justin Brashares at
the University of California, Berkeley, during the study and
now a postdoctoral scholar at Cornell University.
Understanding the links between human
and environmental health is critical for the millions who cope
with recurrent illness and rely directly on natural resources
To study these connections, Fiorella
spent three months of each year of her graduate studies at Lake
Victoria, a place where health and the environment are
intertwined in complex ways and have been for decades.
Lake Victoria transformed after
British colonists introduced Nile perch, a predatory fish, to
the lake in the 1960s to support commercial fishing.
Nile perch quickly dominated the lake
and caused the extinction of hundreds of native cichlid species.
During the 1980s and 1990s, commercial
fishing grew around the lake and Nile perch started to decline,
so regulations were enacted to save the fishery.
During the same time, the HIV epidemic
was spreading throughout East Africa. As Lake Victoria’s fishing
community grew sicker, the environmental exploitation of the
To explore how illness was altering
fishing practices, the researchers tracked 303 households living
on Lake Victoria by interviewing them four different times over
a year. They collected data about household health and fishing
habits and looked for trends during times of sickness and good
Among active fishers, the study found
limited evidence that illness reduced fishing effort. Instead,
ill fishers shifted the methods they used. When ill, fishers
were more likely to use methods that were illegal, destructive
and concentrated near the shoreline, but required less travel
and energy. They were also less likely to use legal methods that
are physically demanding, require travel to deep waters and are
considered more sustainable.
“When people are chronically ill, they
have different outlooks on the future,” Brashares said.
“That different outlook means that they increasingly rely on
unsustainable methods because they’ re focused on short-term
“Healthy people, it turns out, are
better for the environment,” Richard Yuretich, program
officer for the U.S. National Science Foundation’s Dynamics
of Coupled Natural and Human Systems Program, which funded
the research, was quoted as saying in a news release from UC
“When you feel well, you can plan the
tasks you need to accomplish more carefully. But when you’re
sick, you often just want to get things done fast, with the
result that you may be more wasteful. This project
illustrates the complex relationships we have with the world