New Research Assuages Some Worries About Mosquito Net Fishing

Fishing with mosquito nets is widespread, but potentially less destructive than thought. 

Published November 2, 2016

Armed with mosquito nets, Giriama fishers wade into the shallow water in Kenya’s Mida Creek. Either on foot or in dugout canoes, the fishers are searching for food for their families: mostly small fish, shrimp, crabs, rays, and squid. For hundreds of years, the Giriama were a largely agricultural people living in Kenya’s coastal hinterlands. But in the 1950s, they were resettled along Mida Creek by a government-sponsored scheme “to help rectify their poverty and landlessness.”

Since then, the Giriama have had to find new ways of living. Since at least the late 1970s, some have taken up the controversial practice of mosquito net fishing: using nets intended for malaria protection to sieve the creek. Most of the catch ends up on fishers’ dinner tables. Some sell the surplus, and only a few sell all of their catch.

Mosquito net fishing is not unique to Mida Creek. The practice has also been reported in other developing nations like Timor-Leste, and is regularly met with harsh criticism. Since the nets are being used for fishing rather than warding off mosquitos, critics suggest the practice leaves people vulnerable to disease. Others charge that using the insecticide-soaked nets to fish could contaminate waterways. And because the mesh on mosquito nets is so fine, the nets risk capturing juvenile fish and eggs, hurting the ecosystem.

But as University of Stirling PhD candidate Emma Bush has recently shown—at least for the Giriama—the use of mosquito nets for fishing may not be leaving them open to disease. Bush found that 92 percent of Giriama mosquito net fishers use nets they consider too old and unfit for mosquito protection, and reserve new nets for their beds. Rather than mosquito net fishing depriving these fishers of malaria protection, the nets may be serving double duty.

Unlike fishing at sea, mosquito net fishing requires little in the way of training or capital, possibly explaining why several of the people Bush and her colleagues interviewed for their study had only just started fishing when they got mosquito nets.

For those living subsistence lifestyles like the Giriama, mosquito net fishing may offer a rare opportunity for income and food diversification. However, with a growing number of mosquito net fishers, the anticipated environmental consequences may make the practice unsustainable in the long term.

Through her interviews, Bush found that many Mida Creek residents are worried about the environmental impacts of mosquito net fishing. “More people are going out to fish now,” Bush says, relaying the concerns of some of the people she spoke to. And some fishers on Mida Creek suggest juvenile fish are being caught in the fine mesh of the mosquito nets, affecting fish populations. However, without stock assessments, it is difficult to see the extent of the potential problem.

Residents also raised concerns about the toxic effects of the nets’ insecticides leaching into the water. But because the nets are old, the insecticide may have already dissipated. Again, without a proper assessment of insecticide levels in the creek or its fish, the study can’t say if leaching is a problem.

The issue of mosquito net fishing is complicated. Many critics would like to see the practice banned outright. But this is top-down management, Bush says, “and doesn’t concern itself with community well-being in the short term.”

Bush suggests community-led, or co-managed solutions between the community and government could produce a better outcome than top-down rulings. “If you request, by law, for a poor person to stop fishing with this net, can the government help them to do something else?” Bush says.