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Madame Kokoly

Story by Blue Ventures May 19th, 2015

Madame Kokoly is an unusual woman

That she is alone on the beach mending a small outrigger canoe while the evening darkens is the first sign of this.

Amongst the Vezo – the traditional fishers of southwest Madagascar – this is normally a man’s job. But as she pastes homemade glue into the cracks in the broken hull it is clear that she knows what she is doing.

The glue was made from dried latex, which she’d collected from a euphorbia species in the spiny forest earlier. With it she hopes to plug the leaks in her canoe, which looks worn out and broken. Madame Kokoly admits that it is too old: even with all the glue she’s putting on, she fears it’ll still leak too much to allow her to go fishing in it tomorrow.


I ask her how much a new hull is, wondering why she doesn’t replace it.

8,000 – 10,000 Ariary for a rough hull.

That’s about 4-5 US dollars. But she’ll still have to shape the rough hull, then add strips of hardwood to it and do the joinery so that the outrigger can be tied on. A lot of fishermen don’t have this skill and so must pay someone else to do it. Does she know how to do it?

Yes, she says, I’m Vezo. My problem is that with this leaky canoe I can’t go out often enough to the good fishing spots further away, so I can’t save money for a new hull.

It is the nation-wide seasonal closure of the octopus fishery; a time when gleaners and fishers throughout the country stop catching octopus to allow stocks to replenish. There are no buyers in the village during this period, so Madame Kokoly can’t earn money from octopus.

Moreover, it’s neap tide, which means that the reef flats are still underwater at low tide so, like all of the other women in her community, she can’t go out onto the reef flat on foot to glean. Fishing with a hand-line is how she must get food and earn money at this time.


The next morning she is up before dawn collecting shellfish from the mud in the nearby mangrove forests. She breaks the flesh out of the shells, making a pile of broken mollusc that she’ll use as bait. Then, as the sun rises, she walks three kilometres to some small cliffs overhanging the water where she can fish. Like many traditional Vezo fishers, she must fish daily for food.

Later that day I see her cleaning sea cucumbers for a middleman in the village. She’ll earn a couple of hundred Ariary (20 US cents) for one or two hours of work. I see her doing other odd jobs such as this. She never seems to stop. I ask the other villagers why she works so much. She has two children, but her husband is afraid of the water and of the forest so he's not able to help her with most of her work.


It is cyclone season, and the winds and rain are relentless. The next day the wind is particularly strong and very few fishermen go out. Madame Kokoly borrows an outrigger canoe from a fisherman who is not using it and paddles out through the rain, across the lagoon to just inside the breakers where she fishes for small snapper and trigger fish using her hand-line.

The snappers she sells to the local middleman, but the trigger fish have no market value and she keeps these for food. There are some Vezo women who will paddle offshore to hand-line fish, but most don’t. Once again Madame Kokoly is the exception, rather than the rule.

Over the coming weeks the rains and winds intensify. A tropical storm sweeps down the coast and there are weeks when the weather won’t allow fishing, especially in a leaky canoe. I wonder how Madame Kokoly is faring.


The next time I see her is the day of the opening of the national octopus fishery closure. The opening happens to fall over a neap tide, and so favours men, who free-dive for octopus, over women, who must wait for the tide to be low enough so that they can walk out and glean on exposed reef flats.

But Madame Kokoly is not your usual woman.

The weather is fair and in her little, battered canoe she paddles across the lagoon to the backwaters behind the crest of the barrier reef. Here she begins free-diving for octopus.


Once again, it’s normally only men who dive for octopus: Madame Kokoly is one of only a small number of women who do. And while men almost always dive with a mask, she just goes straight into the water armed with only her spear.

I ask her if she can see underwater without a mask?

Yes of course, how do you think the Vezo used to dive before the foreigners brought masks here?

I’m beginning to see that Madame Kokoly is a true Vezo; a person who can live with the sea in every way. She paddles her canoe with short but strong strokes, constantly searching the seabed for signs of an octopus den. When she sees one, she anchors her canoe and dives down to have a closer look. She’s an efficient hunter and within half an hour has caught three fair-size octopus.


She drifts away from us, but when I see her later that day she is grinning from ear to ear. She’s caught over 11 kilograms of octopus:

The octopus fishery closure worked for me today – I caught the same amount that I used to be able to catch a long time ago, when I was young.

More than a decade ago, a single Vezo village first trialled a short-term octopus fishery closure with the help of a number of marine conservation organisations. Here the village closed just a part of their total octopus gleaning grounds for three months. During this time they could continue to glean elsewhere, and upon opening the closure, their catches greatly improved.

Since then, fishing villages the length of the southwest coast of Madagascar have carried out more than 250 such temporary closures, as a way of increasing their catches and earning more money. They also inspired national fisheries policy, leading to the introduction of an annual nation-wide closure of octopus fishing grounds.

I ask Madame Kokoly what she thinks of the closures.Without the closures, our octopus catches were very small compared to before. But the closures have enabled us to catch more octopus again when we open them. To me, the closures allow me to save money. Tomorrow afternoon, I’ll go and buy a new pirogue hull.

By demonstrating that taking less from the ocean can give us more, these short-term octopus fishery closures have sparked more ambitious marine management led by communities, for communities. Today, 11% of Madagascar’s seabed is under local management.

Blue Ventures works to directly empower the people who rely most on these resources, helping them to make the best decisions for their own livelihoods and that of future generations.

Footnote: Photos and text by Garth Cripps / Blue Ventures 2015
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