Africa In Fact (Johannesburg)

Madagascar: Island Stress

The fishermen in Sarodrano, a coastal village in south-west Madagascar, complain about their steadily declining catches. "On a good day, I used to catch 15kg of fish," says Melau Feaucre Johanison, a 39-year-old fisherman. "But if it is too stormy, we don't catch anything. There are some months when there is no fish at all."

Two widows, Josiany Celestinym, 60, and Vance Leonce, 41, are gleaners. They forage the shallow reefs at low tide looking for octopus, oysters and sea cucumbers. They also complain that the oysters are harder to find than they used to be.

The reasons for this decline - which researchers and conservationists agree could get far worse over the next decade - are many and various.

Together they tell a story of lacklustre monitoring, poor management and economic pressure in a country where, according to the World Bank, 92% of its 22m people lived on less than $2 a day in 2013.

The island nation of Madagascar boasts an astonishing array of plants, reptiles and mammals, including its famous baobab trees and lemurs found nowhere else on earth. But the island's geological features have also shaped an extraordinary marine life.

A wide western continental shelf is home to extensive mangrove swamps and coral reef ecosystems, which marine biologist Andrew Cooke, author of "Madagascar, a Guide to Marine Diversity", says are an important regional centre of oceanic breeding grounds, crucial to maintaining the ocean's biodiversity.

Unlike the rainforests on land, sea systems have the advantage that they can recover from degradation, Mr Cooke says. So while the rainforests on land need strict conservation, marine areas just need sustainable management.

Madagascar, however, is the world's fourth-largest island with a coastline of 4,800km, a vast stretch that the government in Antananarivo cannot patrol, police or monitor.

The country has just three vessels and nine speedboats to monitor domestic fisheries or protect its waters from illegal fishing boats, according to the University of British Columbia's Frederic Le Manach, lead author of a June 2011 study looking at fishing, hunger and political turmoil in Madagascar.

According to the study, published in the journal Marine Policy, fleets from Europe and Asia sailing Madagascar's waters since at least the 1980s have routinely underreported their hauls.

His study compared official data--declared by fishing companies to the European Union or submitted by Madagascar to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) - with reports from NGOs working on the island, local experts and other technical information.

It found that since 1986 the EU has been declaring catches of 10,000 tonnes each year. But the report estimates that real catches are likely to have been closer to 18,000 tonnes per year. Actual fish catches in Madagascar's waters by domestic fisheries over the past 50 years were also nearly double what was reported.

An Asian long-line fleet also operates in Malagasy waters. The report estimates its unreported catches to be up to 50,000 tonnes per year.

"Except for the 1991-1994 period with legal catches varying around 6,000-8,000 tonnes per year, no official access agreements exist between Madagascar and the Asian countries; therefore, these catches are considered illegal under international law," the report states.

While no one makes the accusation on record, many working in the field suspect that Madagascan government institutions are colluding with foreign fishing companies, granting licences for free or for low prices in return for bribes.

Madagascar's own fisheries focus mainly on coastal species. Shrimps have been exploited industrially since the mid-1960s, while other invertebrates (notably octopus, lobster, crab and sea cucumber) and sharks are fished on a semi-industrial or subsistence scale.

Illegal scuba diving for sea cucumbers happens openly along the island's west coast. High demand in Asian markets has made these elongated edible sea creatures some of the world's most valued marine commodities.

Researcher Michele Barnes- Mauthe of the University of Hawaii estimated in 2013 that sea cucumbers' local market price by weight was almost nine times that of octopus.

But the biggest scandal, according to Mr Cooke, is the hunting and sale of sea turtles. "Sea turtles are the rosewood of the sea," he says, alluding to the increase in illegal logging of the richly-hued timber since the political crisis in Madagascar began in 2009.

"The Malagasy people eat [the turtles], as well as export them alive to China," he says. "The trade is clearly illegal, but the Malagasy authorities see any attempt to regulate the trade as imposed by foreigners and refuse to do anything about it."

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) has listed all sea turtles on its Appendix I list since 2004, which prohibits their export, Mr Cooke explains. "But no action has been taken" against the traders, he laments.

"Madagascar has no nesting grounds for turtles left, apart from one or two small places. The animals come from other protected places, like the Seychelles, then swim to Madagascar [a distance of about 1,800km] where they are hunted."

Sharks are also the victims of poor monitoring, according to the Le Manach study. Total catches of sharks taken by both domestic and foreign fishers in Madagascar's waters are likely well over 8,000 tonnes per year, the 2011 report estimates.

"The Malagasy have been exporting shark fins since the 1890s, as it used to be that every Chinese wanted shark fin soup at his wedding. This obsession has diminished somewhat, but is not completely gone," Mr Cooke says.

Whether it stems from official corruption or merely a lack of commitment to oversight, overfishing--either by foreign vessels or locals--jeopardises not only the delicate marine ecosystems, but also the livelihood of Madagascar's poorest people.

For most of the 70,000 Malagasy who live along the south-west coast, fishing is a crucial source of nutrition and income since agriculture is virtually impossible in this arid region.

The fishermen in these villages also catch finfish, Madagascar round herring, ray, squid, lobster, shrimp and crab. The women work mostly as gleaners, foraging what they can at low tide.

In the fishing communities near Velondriake, a locally-managed marine area also in the south-west, locally-caught seafood is the protein source in 99% of household meals. An average of 82.4% of all household income is directly generated from fishing and gleaning, according to Ms Barnes-Mauthe's analysis.

"Madagascar's small-scale fisheries sector is highly significant and has potential to both feed people and support livelihoods," according to the University of Hawaii study.

The region's fishermen extracted about 5,524 tonnes of fish and invertebrates in 2010 primarily from coral reefs, of which 83% was sold, generating revenues of nearly $6m, according to the research.

But environmentalists agree that traditional fishermen and their destructive methods cause the most damage to coral reefs.

"They use small mesh nets or even mosquito nets...trample on the reef, or use poisons, stun the fish with spear guns; they overharvest and dive for sea cucumbers," Mr Cooke says.

The local authorities are not doing much to stop it. "The ... government is often reluctant to enforce the law when a practice is popular, like forbidding people to fish with small mesh nets," says Brian Jones, a coordinator at Blue Ventures, an English conservation group. "They understand that fishers are poor and there are few viable alternatives."

Blue Ventures works in south-western villages north of Tulear and encourages their residents to introduce temporary closures of fishing areas, restricting the use of about one-fifth of a village's available fishing grounds for two to three months.

This practice gives octopus and fish a chance to recover. More than 50 communities along this 400km of coastline have since created reserves.

Ideally, fishing communities close up a reserve permanently and wait for the spillover effect. This occurs once the fish have been allowed to breed inside and fishing can be done around the protected zone. This process can take about five years.

"It's very hard to convince subsistence fishers to permanently close a productive fishing ground," Mr Jones says. "The people in the south-west of Madagascar depend on fishing."

Closing an area for a few months to increase the catches of a fast-growing and short-lived species like octopus, however, is feasible.

"It sells the idea of a longer closure for other marine life," Mr Jones says. "When a community sees that octopus reserves work, they realise that fisheries management can benefit them, and become more interested in permanent reserves. Along one 40km stretch of coast, fishing communities have now established six permanent coral reef reserves."

The strategy has been so successful that the government established a project of this kind all along the south west coast in 2007, financed by the African Development Bank. "The government can do this on a scale we can't," Mr Jones admits.

"They set up a platform, got collectors involved and since 2006 have imposed a six-week closure of the whole area every year from December to January, while also expanding village-based reserves along Madagascar's entire south-west coast."

It will take sustained political will, and many more efforts like this, to reverse the trend of coastal degradation and the destruction of ocean life.

While overseas fleets continue to deplete the waters unchecked, and locals fish with destructive methods, the slide will continue, jeopardising not only aquatic life but also the livelihood of Madagascar's people.

In the meantime, the fishers and gleaners of Sarodrano village face an uncertain future. "Ever since we were children, we went out to look for oysters," Ms Vonce says. "Now there is nothing left in the sea, we are not sure what to do."

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