Thin government regulation of Madagascar’s fisheries industry has disguised a steady and unsustainable rise in the sector’s production over the past two decades, which threatens both the long-term survival of key marine species and the livelihoods of fishing-dependent coastal communities, according to local conservation groups.
The coastline of the world’s fourth largest island is about 4,800km, providing it with an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of more than 1.2 million square kilometres, but the government has no capacity to patrol, police or monitor its vast maritime asset.
According to a 2011 study led by researchers from Canada’s University of British Columbia, in collaboration with Blue Ventures, a Madagascar-based conservation organization, fish catches in the country were double the official documented tally, with much of it caught by unregulated artisanal fishermen or foreign-registered fishing vessels.
Management of the country’s fishing stocks is seen as a crucial component of the country’s long-term food security, given the high risks associated with relying exclusively on agriculture. Subsistence farming of the staple rice is the predominant practice of Madagascar’s donor-dependent economy, but insecurity, poor infrastructure, and natural disasters such as cyclones and locust infestations are all handicapping agrarian development. More than three-quarters of the country’s population - about 20 million people - live on less than US$1 a day, according to government figures.
Madagascar has the world’s 28th longest coastline, which the government is hugely under-equipped to police. “The country has three monitoring vessels and nine speedboats to protect its waters from illegal fishing boats and monitor domestic fisheries,” said Frederic Le Manach, lead author of the study from the University of British Columbia, in a 2011 report of the Sea Around Us Project.
Foreign fishing fleets from Europe and Asia are placing additional pressure on Madagascar’s fisheries; their annual seafood catch of nearly 80,000 tons - almost the same amount local fishermen catch - exacerbates the impact of overfishing at the local level, according the University of British Colombia’s research.
More than 70,000 Malagasy live along the arid southwest coast, known for some of the largest coral reef systems in the western Indian Ocean. For many, including the Vezo, a group of Malagasy coastal people, fishing is a crucial source of income.
The majority of villagers are “gleaners” foraging at low tide for octopus, primarily, but also for snails and sea cucumbers, from the shallow-lying reefs. Octopus is the most lucrative catch as it is one of the largest export commodities from the southwest, according to Blue Ventures.
Before 2002, only villages in the proximity of the port city Toliara exploited octopus for commercial export. But increasing demand has led to an expansion of the trade along the southwest coast, leading to a decrease in catch.
“Octopus fishing is our way of life. It is a Vezo job. It is like going to school; we have always learnt this and done this. We cannot survive without this work,” said Honorine, a local octopus gleaner and member of the Velondriake Association, a community organization that works to protect the marine environment. The association has a 24 village membership in the Andavadoaka region.
Blue Ventures, working with community organizations like the Velondriake Association, has tried to stem the decline of octopus by introducing, in 2004, temporary closures of fishing areas.
This strategy gives octopus stocks a chance to recover, and more than 50 communities along 400km of coastline have since adopted the practice, termed “marine protected areas” (MPAs).
Donah Angelo Gilbert, a marine conservationist and aquaculture technician for Blue Ventures, says that the MPAs were initially resisted by villagers.
“They make a living from the sea, so explaining to them that they had to stop fishing in certain areas was tricky. But they had already seen their fish stocks declining and that they needed to protect the sea in order to survive; they realized they had no alternative if they wanted their children to be able to have a future at sea,” Gilbert told IRIN.
Honorine lives in Tampolove, a village of 600 people, with one school and no hospital, where fishing is the lifeblood of the community. She recognizes the impact MPAs have had.
“When we started the reserves, our lives became better. We have experienced an increase in octopus catch and an increase in the individual size of octopus.”
The MPA model has kick-started government action; it has “guided national fisheries policy, leading to two new national laws in Madagascar introducing minimum octopus catch sizes and annual closure periods to protect spawning stock,” said Alasdair Harris, the founder of Blue Ventures. The maritime sector remains under-regulated, however.
The temporary closures are not a panacea for Madagascar’s overfishing problem, but with little government legislation on fishing practices to date, co-management - as collaborations among local communities, conservation organizations and governments are known - could offer a path forward.
A recent study of 42 tropical reef systems in five countries found that such arrangements helped both protect fish stocks and meet the needs of local communities.