Coastal communities in southwestern Madagascar, who risk their lives travelling long distances in dugout canoes to supply a lucrative demand for shark fins, face an uncertain future as unsustainable fishing practices threaten the survival of the marine resources on which they depend.
People in villages along the southwestern coast are reporting a dramatic decrease in all marine resources. "Around 2000 the decline really started here. The octopus catch fell and sea cucumbers disappeared. Some fish species also disappeared," Roger Samba, in the village of Andavadoaka, in Toliara Province, told IRIN.
"It is difficult to catch enough fish to sell. People go far away, fishing from early in the morning until late at night, to catch not even 10kg or 20kg of fish - just 5kg."
When shark fisherman Zoffe loads his nets into his pirogue (a dugout canoe, often with a sail) in the morning and sets out from his home in the coastal town of Morombe into the deep waters of the Mozambique Channel, he knows that he will be lucky if he catches anything.
"It is really hard to catch shark now," Zoffe told IRIN. "Things are not like they used to be; before, there used to be shark very near the shore - just five metres below the surface of the sea - now they are only found very far away, and are very deep. They are very difficult to catch."
The coral reef system along Madagascar's southwestern coast is almost 500km long and one of the largest in the world. Marine resources provide the primary source of income for all coastal communities, supporting more than 20,000 people in Toliara Province alone. Entire villages have traditionally relied on catching sea cucumbers and octopus, and fishing on near-shore coral reefs as their sole source of income.
"Communities here depend massively on marine resources, yet these are over-exploited and they desperately need to find a way to utilise them sustainably," Garth Cripps, a marine scientist based in Toliara town, told IRIN.
|These fishermen are poor and the attraction of fishing for sharks and sea cucumbers is huge. If we truly want to protect our resources we must address the market|
"If they carry on as they are, they will push the ecosystem to the brink of collapse, and the social and environmental consequences of that will be very negative for them."
The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates the value of Madagascar's fisheries at US$160 million annually; fishing mining and tourism are the three main drivers of economic development.
At least 3.6 billion people worldwide - 60 percent of the global population - live within 60km of the coast, the UN estimates. Marine systems provide an estimated $21 trillion in environmental and economic services annually – 70 percent more than terrestrial habitats.
Demand for shark fin in China, where the meat is considered a delicacy, and for sea cucumbers, which are believed to be an aphrodisiac, have become major sources of income in Madagascar, which exports up to 20 tonnes of shark fins every year. A kilogram can fetch as much as 140,000 ariary ($56) on local markets, and up to $1,000 in China.
Poor law enforcement
Poor law enforcement also means that vulnerable marine resources are being over-exploited. Although the government has banned the use of air tanks to dive for sea cucumbers, the practice continues.
"The laws regarding the exploitation of marine resources are not implemented here in Madagascar," said Man Wai Rabenevanana, director of the Institute of Marine Science in Toliara. "The state doesn't invest enough in managing marine resources and capacity building to allow them to manage resources effectively."
Madagascar has a long way to go in protecting its marine resources. "It is very difficult to stop fishermen from catching shark and collecting sea cucumbers," said Rabenevanana. "These fishermen are poor and the attraction of fishing for sharks and sea cucumbers is huge. If we truly want to protect our resources we must address the market. We must do more to discourage the Chinese from eating shark fin soup; perhaps we can even find an alternative."
There are no conservation programmes in place to protect sharks. "It is not a sustainable fishery because it is not properly regulated," Volanirina Ramahery, of the World Wide Fund for Nature, an environmental NGO, told IRIN.
The decline of the primary predator could unbalance the entire marine food chain. Studies in the Caribbean have shown that too few sharks mean other carnivorous species increase and eat too many other useful fish, such as those keeping algae on the coral in check, which can eventually endanger the entire reef ecosystem.
"The disappearance of sharks would have devastating impacts on marine habitats and the local communities that depend on these," Frances Humber, a marine biologist studying shark populations in southern and western Madagascar with the British conservation organisation, Blue Ventures, told IRIN.
"A collapse in the shark fishing industry could threaten the economic stability of the region, and would mean the loss of livelihoods for thousands of fisherman."
In an effort to provide alternative sources of income for fishermen and to help protect the marine environment, Blue Ventures is developing a project to farm sea cucumbers. The organisation is working with an export company to establish sea cucumber farms run by local women in the village of Belavenoke in Toliara. All profits from the venture will go directly to the village.
Women in Belavenoke have welcomed the initiative. "Sea cucumber farming is good for us," Katherine, a member of the local Women's Association involved in the project told IRIN. "Resources are decreasing and I am worried about the future, because maybe one day there will be nothing left for us."
Clarisse, a sea cucumber and octopus supplier in Belavenoke said: "Life is getting harder all the time here, because there is no way of earning money except from fishing. It is only the sea that gives us money, but the fish are fewer and fewer, and I am worried about this."