Community Ambition to Find Options on “Overfished” Reefs in Madagascar
There: its long, lace-like, white tentacles spinning, grasping, confused, fighting, and wrapping around the metal baton. There: the first wild horita (or octopus) of my life, its facial tubes puffing with a purple exhaust. Beautiful, but dead. It—along with the 3 other octopi we would see in the next 30 minutes—already on the end of a long spear. Even though we were only there to get a sense of the reef, how could food be left? When those on land wait, how could we—as was explained to me—throw out food?
Beheloke, a rural fishing community in Southwest Madagascar, is woven with scenes of drying blue nets, drying fish, drying laka (dugout canoes with stabilizers), drying bricks to build artificial octopus habitat. Lunch or dinner will be white sticky rice, with a side of fried, dried or smoked fish; octopus; squid. Nothing is wasted. For its residents, fishing has been the only way to get by.
In last two years, it has rained a rumored total of four days in Beheloke: four days. And the arid sandy soils have desiccated agricultural food security. While zebu (cattle with pronounced ‘grizzly-bear’ humps) and other livestock maintain an important cultural role, the question becomes: how does one maintain a herd when grazing and fresh water is scarce to none? When there isn’t enough potable water? Algoculture was brought in, as a way to secure revenue to buy food. Yet I hear stories of how it is difficult to justify time to wade out at low tide to maintain lines, when money will come later, and there is no food for that night. The sea is different, too. It is warmer, higher, and the straw house remnants above the high tide line match the stories of extreme changes over the past 2 years. The reef is the lifeline of the community, the refrigerator, and it too is changing.
As one of 6 WWF volunteers living in Beheloke, I wear a blue T-Shirt that says “Arovo ty Riake”: protect our oceans. But I do not think the residents of Beheloke need to be told the importance of protecting the ocean, or managing fisheries in a sustainable way. With WWF, the community has set up management committees and has elected and hired six men who, like Auguste, are employed to try and record what is coming out of the water. People agree on conservation measures, but the problem remains: what is the option for tonight’s meal?
Not 10m away from where I look at the speared octopus, bubbles surface. I stick my mask—albeit it already half filled with salt water—in the turquoise water, and watch the six marine biologists continue their transects. White tape measures trace the shallow reef, and square quadrats stream behind the (already very encumbered with gear) divers. This is the last day of a 23 day survey of these coasts, work by WWF and College des Oceanographes Université à Toliara (COUT), that happens every three years to document key indicators of health and resilience on coral reefs in this part of Madagascar.
As they finish their work, the divers come up shaking their heads. Jean-Claude, a biologist who measures fish diversity, starts to explain why his dive was so short. He motions to a laka beside us with two young boys grasping a turquoise fishing net. It is the same fine mesh nets used in city hotel rooms for malaria control: a net that will take with it all juvenile fish, and all chances for fish stock recovery. Perhaps in the end, this net is what has brought us to Beheloke as volunteers. We are here to improve alternative livelihood projects, develop long-term management plans, boost tourism potential, all to try and make it so nets like that that are no longer necessary to resort to.
As we come back to shore, 2 volunteers cook a beautiful lunch, of food we long since packed and planned for in the city. We are lucky, we have oil, we have some vegetables (although ants and rats do threaten our small supply). But as I look at our omelet for 6 people, with 2 eggs, I long for a whole egg to myself. How many times in my life have I taken this for granted? What do I know about hunger? About not being able to feed your family? About not having the luxury of simply watching an octopus swim by? I have so much to learn, and so much privilege.
There is a local legend that if a fisherman cleans or washes a horita at sea, it is disrespectful to the ocean; and the ocean will become angry, threatening the fishermen’s ability to head out to sea for even up to a week. This could be disastrous for a family, and keeps strong taboos on preparing octopus on the water. There are connections to the environment, connections to this place that I know is a rarity in my own life. I feel so lucky to be here, where the warm, welcoming community is full of people like August so readily motion for us to get a closer look, to find out more, to know more (and to sing while doing it all).
I asked Jean-Claude one more question before we got back to shore: Are you optimistic, still, despite what you have seen? Yes. We have knowledge and creativity on how to provide alternative employment, and ensure there is conservation during key breeding times. We have research in order to track biodiversity changes. And, perhaps most importantly, the community recognizes the way the reef has changed, and have ambitions to find options.
The reef may appear naked from the surface, but there is life still below.
Navarana Smith, WWF Volunteer Intern - Water Resource Management project in Beheloke, Madagascar, in 2014