Fishing for Tomorrow

In the nine months I’ve lived in Malawi, the most Important thing I’ve learned is that the overwhelming majority of aid organizations don’t benefit Malawians. Well intentioned Americans and Europeans roll into my village every few months in shiny white landcruisers, holding meetings in English and bribing local’s attendance with biscuits and soft drinks. Sometimes they build something, like a borehole. But when the borehole breaks, it stays broken because they never taught someone how to fix it or where to buy parts. Large agencies simply don’t understand how things work in the village.

But the most egregious lapse in judgement I’ve witnessed in Malawi is the USAID mass distribution of malaria bed nets. Malaria is a massive problem in Malawi, especially in my lakeshore district of Nkhata Bay. The mosquito vectored virus is a major cause of child mortality. USAID’s solution? Do hand out enough insecticide impregnated bed nets for every person in Malawi to sleep beneath every four years. Anopheles mosquitos are the vectors, and they only bite at night. So in theory it’s a great idea. But in practice, it has been a disaster.


There is almost no empirical data on how many people actually sleep under their USAID bed nets, but their effect on preventing malaria rates has been underwhelming.  You only have to step into a village to see that these nets are used for about everything except sleeping under. They are used for chicken coups, ropes, garden fences, drying racks, goat leashes, window screens, children’s toys, livestock tags, and most devastatingly, for fishing.

90% of Lake Malawi is overfished.  In addition to being the most biodiverse ecosystem on earth, Lake Malawi’s fisheries also supports 4% of the national GDP and over 45% of Malawian’s total protein consumption. According to the most recent Frame Survey, over 200,000 individuals rely solely on fisheries for the livelihoods. And as fishermen are exclusively male, over one million women and children rely upon that income for survival.  But the fisheries are failing. Chambo and utaka (larger predatory fish)  are scarce and usipa (sardine like bait fish) catches are falling.

Towing the bed net

While there are a number of contributing factors like overpopulation and climate change, undermeshed net gear is the biggest problem. Malawian law dictates that nets should have at least 1.5 inch holes, allowing juvenile fish to slip through and grow to an adult size. Malaria bed nets are designed to keep out tiny mosquitoes, so when they are used in water they scoop up absolutely everything.

Tiny baby fish, or fry, less than a centimeter long are caught in bed nets. Used close to shore near wetlands and breeding areas, these nets wipe out entire generations of fish. If caught when they are young fish will never grow to full size, never reach maturity and spawn new generations of fish. Some coastal areas are biological deserts with no sizeable yields, and people are literally starving.


Bed nets are used for fishing in several ways. Sometimes thousands are stitched together in massive seine nets killing everything within a massive area. They are incorporated as bunts (like the bottom of a purse) in legal nets to prevent fish from escaping, as part of fish traps in rivers and wetlands, and sometimes are used to block off entire tributaries flowing into Lake Malawi.

Perhaps most commonly they are used by women and children close to shore. Before bet net distributions fishing required significant start-up capital. You need to purchase nets and a canoe, and only men are culturally permitted to fish. Now women and children, who are the target recipients of USAID bed nets, are the main users of illegal net gear. All they need to do is to walk through the shallows with their green net and scoop up a meals worth of tiny fish.

While using undermeshed nets (including bed nets) is technically illegal, there is virtually no law enforcement along the lakeshore. The Fisheries extension Offices are understaffed, underfunded, and overworked. Each officer has over a hundred kilometers of beaches to monitor and oftentimes there is no funding for their transportation. In addition, law enforcement in Malawi is notoriously corrupt and regular police officers have little interest in environmental crime.

Therefore the main enforcement of fishing regulations comes down to Beach Village committees (BVCs), which are small groups composed of local stakeholders that function as law enforcement in their designated areas. They work with fisheries officers to confiscate illegal nets, monitor catches, and enforce regulations. BVCs are incredibly important institutions, but they sometimes blur the line between community empowerment and mob justice.

See the boat in the upper right? That’s the boat trawling the net, it’s over 5000 meters long. 

For example, a very contentious issue in Nkhata Bay is that of migrant fishermen. Migrant fishermen come from different districts in Malawi or from Tanzania or Mozambique, camping on the beaches and selling their catch in town, but returning to their homes for at least half the year. They are also notorious for using illegal nets, engaging in prostitution (as their wives are far away), and for abusing alcohol and marijuana. Overall migrant fishermen are seen as a negative social and environmental influence, and the newest set of fisheries bylaws in Nkhata Bay and Nkhotakhota bans migrant fishermen from these districts.

Empowered by the bylaws BVCs have begun to chase away migrant fishermen. Confiscating their nets, telling them to leave, and sometimes actively chasing them away by burning their camps, throwing rocks, and beating the migrants until they go. It’s scary, and it’s happening in my village at the prompting of various government organizations and NGOs.


I feel a great deal of personal conflict about these issues. On the one hand, I’m a scientist working with a fisheries conservation NGO. It’s an empirical fact that if current fishing trends continue it will mean disaster for Lake Malawi. Something has to change, and soon, if the lake and its’ biodiversity is to survive.

But what keeps me up at night is this question: What should the human role be in ecological systems?

I met a man recently who said “bugger human rights, Lake Malawi is more important and a few people are going to have to starve if we want to protect the lake for future generations”. I almost wish I could see things like this, in black and white. In the way I did in my SUNY-ESF ecology classes, where I learned to calculate the Maximum Sustainable Yield of a fish population. A simple equation, ending in a simple number, which tells you how many fish you can harvest every year.


But almost a year in the village has forced me to see things differently. When you visit with fishing families who have next to nothing, see the distended bellies on their malnourished children, attend the funerals of those who wither away from AIDs or die from cerebral malaria; nothing again will ever be black and white.

How can we tell people to stop fishing when fishing is all they have? How can they send their children to school if there is no money for fees. What happens if they don’t have any land to farm? How do they feed their families? But what will happen if they continue to fish in this way? They will have no money, no food, and the lake will be irreparably damaged. But how do you convince people to leave fish for tomorrow if they need fish today?


I don’t have an answer to these questions. I don’t think anybody does, and I don’t think the answer should come from an American or any other mzungu in Malawi. That job is meant for Malawians, it is their home, their lake, and their responsibility.

But what I do know is this: the USAID mass distribution of malaria bed nets does far more harm in Malawi than it does good. The minute reduction of the spread of malaria does not compensate for the devastating environmental and economic externalities.

If an individual is not motivated enough to actively purchase and sleep under a bed net, giving them one for will not result in the desired behavior. Other countries have had success in selling nets for a low price, which results in far more nets over beds and less in waterways. Perhaps this method would work well in Malawi, or maybe there is another solution. I’m not a health expert, but in my experience none of the health experts working in Malawi seem to be aware that mass bed net distributions are a problem.


The nation wide distribution of malaria bed nets is hailed as a great success story, as an unavoidable move in the fight for human health. While I don’t know what the human role in ecological systems should be, I know that they are not separate. They are intrinsically, inseparably, linked.

Nets distributed for human health are being used for fishing, crippling Malawi’s fisheries, it’s economy, and ultimately human health through protein deficiencies and malnutrition. All the while, people are still suffering from malaria. Giving someone a net does not mean they will sleep under it.

Teenage boys fishing with bed nets, leaving their future as fishermen in jeopardy. 

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