Madagascar: Slowing the plunder of Madagascar’s fish stocks (IRIN)

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“Octopus fishing is our way of life.” says Madame Honorine. “We cannot survive without this work.” Madame Honorine fishes for octopus in Tampolove, a village of 600 people on Madagascar’s southwest coast.

More than 70,000 Malagasy live along this arid coastline. For many, fishing the shallow-lying reefs at low tide for octopus, snails and sea cucumbers is a crucial source of income.

Madagascar is the world’s fourth largest island, with a coastline of about 4800 kilometres. In theory, the country has political and economic control of more than one million square kilometres of the Indian Ocean. But the government has little capacity to patrol, police or monitor these vast waters.

Frederic Le Manach is a researcher at the University of British Columbia, or UBC, in Canada. He says, “The country has three monitoring vessels and nine speedboats to protect its waters from illegal fishing boats and monitor domestic fisheries.”

In 2011, UBC researchers collaborated with Blue Ventures, a Madagascar-based conservation organization. They found that the actual fish catch in the country’s waters was double the official tally. Much of it was being caught by unregulated local fishermen and foreign-registered fishing vessels.

Fleets from Europe and Asia are putting Madagascar’s fisheries under pressure. Their annual catch in Madagascar’s waters is nearly 80,000 tons, almost the same as local fisherfolk. This worsens the impact of overfishing on local communities.

According to Blue Ventures, octopus is the island’s most lucrative catch. Before 2002, only villages near the port of Toliara caught octopus for commercial export. But increasing demand has led to an expansion of the trade along the southwest coast, and a decrease in the total catch of octopus.

Madame Honorine is a member of the Velondriake Association, a community organization that works to protect the marine environment. Its membership is spread across 24 villages in the Andavadoaka region of southwest Madagascar. Working with Blue Ventures, the organization is trying to stop the decline of octopus by introducing temporary closures of fishing areas.

This strategy gives octopus stocks a chance to recover. More than 50 communities along 400 kilometres of coastline have adopted temporary closures, termed “marine protected areas” (MPAs).

Donah Angelo Gilbert is a marine conservationist with Blue Ventures. She admits that it was difficult at first to explain to villagers that they had to stop fishing in certain areas at certain times.

But, she says: “… they had already seen their fish stocks declining and [knew] 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.”

Alasdair Harris is the founder of Blue Ventures. He believes that the MPA model has kick-started government action. He says 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.”

These collaborations among local communities, conservation organizations and governments could offer a positive path forward. A recent study in five countries found that such arrangements helped protect fish stocks and meet the needs of local communities.

Madame Honorine’s village has one school and no hospital. Fishing is the lifeblood of the community. She sees the effect of the MPAs: “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.”