The study was inspired by the African experiences of lead author Rebecca Short. A researcher with the Zoological Society of London, she first spotted the practice in a coastal town in Mozambique.
"It was just a sea of blue nets and women fishing," she described. "It was like, yep, okay, this is not a small issue."
Insecticide-treated bed nets are an increasingly common way to protect against malaria. Aid organizations and hospitals often give nets away for little or no cost.
Mongabay reports a 2013 estimate that around half of the total population who live in malaria-endemic regions were now sleeping under a protective bed net.
The public health tool appears to be effective. The World Health Organization reported cases of malaria have decreased worldwide.
However, the anti-malaria mosquito nets are also getting used for other purposes, such as fishing. The insecticide embedded into the mesh can stun small fish and shrimp, making them easy to catch.
"There’s an awful lot of piecemeal evidence out there of this happening in a lot of different places," Short reported. "But the general consensus was to not really worry about it, that it was happening in isolated places."
Her experience in Africa inspired Short to investigate the reach of this practice. Her study group made an online survey for more than 100 people working in conservation, public health and fisheries management around the world.
Respondents confirmed that local communities were using mosquito netting to fish for food. The majority of the observations took place in marine environments.
Most cases were found in East Africa. But people in American Samoa, Ecuador, and landlocked Nepal were also reported fishing with mosquito nets.
"We’ve kind of dispelled that it’s just happening in inland waters in a couple of places in Africa," she reported.
Short and her team put up the results of their study in published on January 31 in the journal PLOS ONE. (Related: Survival fishing: 5 tips for catching, eating, and preserving fish.)
Experts are concerned about potential negative effects of mosquito net fishing. Conservationists and natural resource management officials believe the insecticides in the mesh could harm the ecosystem and contaminate people who consume captured fish.
These experts also believe the practice will hurt fish stocks in the long run. The small mesh size of bed nets means they can capture juvenile fish and other small sea life.
Furthermore, bed nets are easy to acquire. Anyone with mosquito netting could become a fisherman overnight. More fishermen would increase the overall pressure on fish populations.
These concerns led African fisheries management officials to speak out against it. Mosquito net fishing has been banned in many areas.
There were also reports of fights between mosquito net fishers and established fishermen who see the newcomers as competitors.
"It’s hugely in debate," lead author Short explained her stance on the topic. "There are very positive short-term impacts for the more vulnerable fishers."
Since mosquito netting is cheap and offers an easy way to catch fish, destitute people could easily improve their diet and income. Short also distinguished between subsistence-level fishing and commercialized operations.
"It appears to be increasing at an alarming rate, so we need to get a handle on it," she remarked regarding the need for additional research on possible ill effects of mosquito net fishing.
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