The community battling overfishing

By Vivien Cumming

They're fighting to save their traditional way of life.

In a small village in southern Madagascar, locals make their living fishing for lobster using handmade palm leaf pots and wooden boats.

Fishermen pull pirogues up the beach at sunrise in Madagascar
Pulling pirogues up the beach at sunrise. © Vivien Cumming
Article continues below

More on Sustainability

At sunrise on the palm fringed beach of Manafiafy village, in the community of Sainte Luce, pirogues (wooden canoes) come surfing in on the waves in their dozens. Locals haul the heavy boats up onto the beach and begin counting and weighing their catch; beautiful spiny lobsters that have been caught in pots made of hand-woven palm leaves.

Small-scale lobster fishing in Sainte Luce is the main source of income for 80% of households, as reported by the London NERC DTP and it’s the key lobster fishery for the region of Anosy, where lobster exports provide the most significant contribution to the regional economy and make up the majority of national lobster exports. In recent years, however, catches have declined, most likely due to overfishing and unpredictable weather patterns, threatening the security of the impoverished community’s main income stream.

In response to the decline in catches, the fishermen, with the help of British NGO SEED Madagascar, have implemented a locally managed marine area which includes a no-take zone with an area of 13km2 for the majority of the year. The project has shown great success in rebalancing stocks, as reported on PLOS ONE and in saving an important industry in Sainte Luce. So much so that surrounding communities are now implementing their own no-take zones.

Buyers inspect the catch of one of the last boats to come in in Sainte Luce, Madagascar
Buyers inspect the catch of one of the last boats to come in. © Vivien Cumming

I was in Sainte Luce investigating the impact of climate change in Madagascar and spent the morning on the beach talking to fisherman about their work and how things have changed. Along the beach, buyers were going from boat to boat as they came in, inspecting the catch and weighing the bigger lobsters. The fishermen were nervously waiting around to see how much they’d make that day.

On the beach, a man named Christin Andry was going from boat to boat with a clipboard. He lives in the village and has been working to monitor the locally managed marine area. He records weights and sizes of the lobsters and checks whether they are females with eggs. He explains that he wants to teach the fisherman about throwing back small lobsters so they can grow to full size as well as leaving any females with eggs. This is part of the project but it’s a hard part to implement, he explains, people say to me. “We need money to buy rice because we can't grow it here so we must sell all we can.”

A fisherman called Tsiraiky hand weaves the lobster pots
Tsiraiky hand weaves the lobster pots. © Vivien Cumming

The Chef Cartier (chief) of the village, Benagnomby Foara, says that weather patterns have become far more unpredictable so they can’t tell when the rains will come like they used to and often have crop failures. Lobster fishing is vital so people can buy food when they can’t grow anything reliably, but, he says, the climate affects the fishing too. “We have a lot more storms now and it’s dangerous to go out in stormy weather, some people risk it when they are desperate, but it’s not safe.”

Fishermen hauling in rickety wooden boats with plastic sheet repairs
Hauling rickety wooden boats in with plastic sheet repairs. © Vivien Cumming

The day I am on the beach the weather is beautiful, but that can be a hindrance too. Lobsters are going for about 80 pence for 1kg. The most a boat brings in that day is 2kg and each boat has three to four people working on it. They tell me it was a bad catch day; lobsters don’t like the sun because they can’t hide from predators very well. Christin explains that sometimes he sees people bring in 20kg, but that’s very rare. “When my grandfather was fishing, he would sometimes bring in 100kg per boat in one day, but that could never happen anymore.”

When my grandfather was fishing, he would sometimes bring in 100kg per boat in one day, but that could never happen anymore"

Christin AndrySainte Luce Data Collector, SEED Madagascar
A fisherman called Merlin shows off two small lobsters
Merlin shows off his catch, these small lobsters are hard to sell and will often be eaten by the locals. © Vivien Cumming

They may never see the 100kg catches of days gone by, but with the new managed areas in place, lobster stocks are increasing and this is helping the local community. Despite the enthusiasm of the local communities to continue implementing no-take zones, the changing climate still poses a problem for them.

“We will continue to do our best to manage the lobster stocks, but we can’t control the weather.”

Featured image by Vivien Cumming

This article was originally published in March 2019.