Nearly 90% of the communities within the Velondriake locally managed marine area (LMMA), a 40-kilometre stretch of coast home to around 10,000 people, depend entirely on fishing for their livelihoods.
Sea cucumbers, found extensively in shallow coastal waters and sold for export to China, provide an important source of cash income for the vezo. A fit young vezo man can free dive up to 25 meters to glean these colourful invertebrates from the seabed.
However, in recent decades teams of itinerant fishers have scoured Madagascar’s coastal waters, illegally using scuba gear to allow them to stay at depth for hours, picking the seabed clean.
Unsurprisingly, wild populations of sea cucumbers have crashed. Gone with them is an economic lifeline for coastal communities like the vezo.
In southwest Madagascar, fishing communities are working with a Malagasy research institution, a private sector partner and conservation organisations, to ensure that traditional vezo fishers can once again benefit from these unlikely, yet lucrative, invertebrates.
In the late 1990s, the University of Toliara’s Marine Science and Fisheries Institute, (IHSM) working with the Université de Mons-Hainaut and the Université Libre de Bruxelles, began developing hatchery technology for commercial rearing of a species of sea cucumber, Holothuria scabra. The private venture Indian Ocean Trepang (IOT), an offshoot of Copefrito, southwest Madagascar’s largest seafood collection company, is now aiming to take sea cucumber aquaculture to scale.
A large proportion of their output is through a community-based production model, which has the potential to provide an important source of income to fishing communities, and reduce pressure on wild populations. Juvenile sea cucumbers are reared in a hatchery in the regional city of Toliara and placed in growth ponds until they’ve reached a couple of centimetres in length. The young sea cucumbers are then transferred to enclosures, like these in the village of Tampolove, where they are tended to by teams of farmers. The farmers agree to then sell the full-grown sea cucumbers back to IOT, after about 9-12 months. This project is also supported by Norges Vel which provides expertise and support in mariculture development.
During the mid-day low tide, farmers tend to their pens— scrubbing off barnacles, fixing posts and mending holes in their enclosures. Because of the high value of sea cucumbers, the farmers have constructed watchtowers, and employ guardians to keep watch at night and deter thieves.
Most of the sea cucumbers emerge from the mud at night, making them easier to collect.
Farmers collect sea cucumbers from their pens into large plastic basins, and float them across to weighing stations. Anything under 400 grams is rejected, and sent back to its pen. A technician keeps track of each farmer’s sea cucumbers by weight class - larger sea cucumbers receive a better price.
On this night, just over 1,000 sea cucumbers are harvested by 15 teams of farmers.
All of the sea cucumbers must now undergo the first round of treatment: evisceration, a first cooking and packing in salt. After being transported to Toliara, they will undergo two more rounds of treatment before they are ready for export.
It’s been a good harvest. Despite the sleep deprivation, or perhaps partly because of it, it’s a jovial atmosphere, with smiles all around in the dawn light.
While vezo fishers possess a wealth of knowledge about the sea and their natural environment, many of them lack formal education and basic business training. The Malagasy NGO CITE provides ongoing trainings to sea cucumber and seaweed farmers in the Velondriake LMMA. Farmers learn how to track their income and expenses, save for future equipment purchases, and access micro-credit loans.
Many of these technicians come from the same communities who are pioneering sea cucumber aquaculture in southwest Madagascar. After a one-month training, they are ready to provide farmers with the technical support needed to reach production levels where aquaculture can turn from a secondary activity to their primary means of supporting their families.
We are confident that the investment will be worth it, and sea cucumber aquaculture will be able to provide a real alternative to fishing for coastal communities. As interest grows in other parts of Madagascar, and further afield, the sea cucumber farmers of Velondriake are proud to tell their story of learning to become farmers of the sea.