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Making a living from the forests between land and sea

Story by Blue Ventures April 16th, 2015

i'm in a fishing village

but I can’t see the sea.

Ankazomborona is perched on the edge of a muddy channel separating the land from a forbidding forest of twisted mangrove trees, their roots veering upwards poking out of the thick dark mud in the quest for air.

The communities around the Ambaro and Ambanja bays in the north west of Madagascar live off these mangroves. The murky waters within shelter crab, shrimp and fish, providing a sheltered haven for spawning and supplying the fisheries of the whole region.

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Charlie Gough and I are in the area to visit the Blue Ventures team as they consult with the community about a potential REDD+ project in the area. Over the past few years the team have been laying the foundations for Madagascar’s first large-scale mangrove carbon project. This project will be implemented through partnership with a number of organisations, including WWF who are supporting community conservation in the area we’re visiting today.

The aim is to allow communities to earn an income from conserving mangrove forests and the vast amounts of carbon they capture. But Blue Ventures’ work on mangroves is not just about securing carbon credits; we envisage this as just one tool in the box, one that we hope can contribute to financing conservation of this critical ecosystem.

Fisheries are at the heart of what we do, and probably the most critical resource these mangroves provide, so we’re also investigating how to put fisheries management at the heart of mangrove conservation in the region, learning from our experiences elsewhere in Madagascar.

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Charlie previously lived for a number of years in the Vezo fishing villages of the southwest of Madagascar, and her curiosity to understand the fisheries up here in the north west is infectious.

We meander slowly down the main road through the village towards the economic hub of village life: the mangroves’ edge, with Ferdinand, our driver and fount of local knowledge. Greeting people as we go, we are struck by the patience of fishers bringing up their catches as we ask all sorts of questions:

How did you catch this?”, “What’s the local name?”, “Where will you sell it?”…

The tides are such that the fishers left the village at 4am, and are just starting to return as we arrive at three in the afternoon. Their pirogues float gracefully up the channel towards the village, and fishers unload their nets, wading through the calf-deep squelching mud.

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In one pirogue we spot the materials used to make traditional fish traps called kira. These funnel shaped traps are erected on the edge of mangroves to catch fish, shrimp and crab leaving the mangroves as the tide goes out.

We are told that the traps would previously catch so much that you’d need to send a pirogue more than 10 times to empty it. Now you’re lucky to fill one boatload.

We meet Marie waiting to buy produce from the fishers to sell on. She shows us the basin of small catfish she’s already bought. She explains that these fish are still babies, and demonstrates how big a grown catfish would be (about three times the size of these). She’s under no illusions about the effect of catching young fish on the fishery – explaining to me that these baby fish have not yet spawned before being caught and this is dangerous – but she says you don’t find big fish anymore and she needs to make a living.

Materials to construct traditional kira fish traps
Juvenile catfish "you don't find big fish anymore"

All around the village we spot mats covered in dried fish of a range of species. Drying fish means it can be exported easily to regional hubs such as Ambilobe, Ambanja, Diego, Sambava, but it will get a lower price.

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Fish (laoko) that isn’t of value for export or suitable for drying is sold locally. Bicycle-mounted traders buy fish in Ankazomborona and then cycle around neighbouring villages selling a few fish in each, calling “Misy laoko” as they go.

On our way back, we meet a trader overseeing the packing and washing of shrimp in five large baskets. He has bought shrimp from twenty different pirogues today, but has only collected 200kg – these five baskets. He tells us that when he started out just one pirogue on its own could catch this same quantity in a day. He needs to collect between 500kg and one tonne of shrimp to fill his truck and take to Diego where he sells to a Chinese buyer. He had already filled a chest freezer with catch from the previous days, so is ready to make the trip today.

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This short visit and the experiences of our team working in similar villages around the Ambaro and Ambanja bays tell us that local people have identified that their resources and livelihoods are in crisis. They have seen fish stocks crash in their own lifetimes and a parallel disappearance and degradation of vast areas of mangroves.

This crash in productivity is due to many things. A big one is mangrove degradation and destruction, driven mainly by charcoal production: the area has lost approximately 20 percent of their mangroves between 1990 and 2010. Another is the use of fishing gear designed to catch small fish, which is also bringing in juveniles and crippling the fisheries’ potential to rejuvenate.

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Our experience in the south west with octopus shows that identifying fisheries that respond to local management measures over short timescales is a successful way of catalysing long-term community management of resources – a foot in the door.

We are still at a very early stage in the north west, but we hope to find similarly successful short-term fishery management measures here which will contribute to long-term management of mangroves in combination with sustainable finance mechanisms such as the sale of carbon credits, preserving the vital livelihoods and ecosystem services these habitats provide.

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Footnote: Blue Ventures 2015. Photos by Garth Cripps, Kitty Brayne and Charlie Gough. Text by Kitty Brayne. With thanks to our valued partners: http://blueventures.org/about/partners/
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