“There I was, in the middle of the ocean, wondering how I could provide for my children if I could not bring back any fish,” recalls Christophe, a member of Madagascar’s Vezo tribe of traditional fishermen and resident of the village of Mahafaly in the island’s arid southwest.
The Vezo, who are scattered across Madagascar’s southern coast, have relied on the ocean for their survival for hundreds of years. As well as providing an essential source of food, when the going is good, surplus catch offers a vital means of additional income.
In recent times however, things have become harder. A combination of decades of overfishing, environmental degradation and climate change have meant that the island’s once bountiful waters have yielded less and less. Numbers of octopus - one of the Vezo’s primary catch - dwindled, leaving Christophe’s family and scores of others in a precarious position.
In response to these challenges, and working in close collaboration with local communities, WWF-Madagascar partnered with international exporter Ocean Farmers to help develop a model that would enable a sustainable income for fishing communities, while conserving the natural environment.
To address the problem of overfishing, in 2014 WWF helped establish a temporary octopus reserve in Mahafaly. By cordoning off areas of the octopus fishing zones and closing them for a month, octopus numbers would be allowed to recover.
While these reserves were being established, local people were trained in how to farm seaweed as a means of creating alternative income during periods of closure. Containing a gel-like substance called carrageenan, seaweed is used in the production of foods such as ice-cream and pasta, cosmetics such as toothpaste and shampoo, and in the pharmaceutical industry.
Requiring limited materials, using a simple farming practice and with a production cycle of only 40 days, seaweed farming is ideally suited to the circumstances and needs of the Vezo. What’s more, it has remarkable environmental benefits, helping to de-acidify ocean waters by removing carbon and creating a healthy environment in which shellfish thrive. The practice also serves to reduce the damage to coral reefs caused by fishing.
When the area was reopened a month later, octopus numbers had recovered, doubling both catch and income. Although many members of the Vezo community were initially hesitant about seaweed farming, seeing it as an obstacle to fishing, perceptions have changed. Marine reserves are now viewed as a way of safeguarding traditional fishing practices and protecting the marine environment.
Seaweed farming has become one of the main sources of income for fishers throughout the region, with communities receiving continued technical and logistical support for the maintenance of their lines. As well as monthly markets in each village, harvested seaweed is sold to Ocean Farmers, who sell it on the international market.
In 2018, the industry supported nearly 1,550 people across the coast, with fishers from communities supported by WWF earning an additional $75 USD or so per month - a significant supplement to their incomes, in a country where more than 75% of the population live on less than $1 USD per day.
And, because octopus fishing is an activity traditionally carried out by women, the industry has had a particularly beneficial impact for female members of the community, with this new source of income helping to provide greater financial emancipation.
As for Christophe, he now looks to the future with hope. Managing 120 lines of seaweed, which he harvests two or three times a month, he has even started employing people to help him manage the crop, and has plans to expand his business.