Then there is another closer by, sailing westwards. And more, until about twenty outrigger canoes gather on an unmarked reef flat six kilometres off the coast of southwest Madagascar. As the tide begins to descend, the traditional Vezo fishers step out of their outrigger canoes and pull them into the shallows of the reef flat.
Three months earlier they had closed this particular reef flat, a proportion of their total fishing grounds, to octopus gleaning. They had used a traditional law, known as a Dina, agreed upon by consensus, to enforce the temporary octopus fishery closure. It had been well respected; and now today, they are here to reap the rewards of their sacrifice.
But first the village elders perform a ceremony to open the reef flat to fishing. The village president Venance stands waiting with the village elders until the tide flows out, leaving the reef flat covered in just a shallow sheet of water, then he gives thanks to their ancestors while splashing rum into the sea. The other elders drink from large bottles of lemonade and fanta (coca cola is not considered good for the Vezo’s ancestors). Venance downs the rest of the rum and, with great flourish, declares the area open to fishing.
They carefully scan the shallows for any nooks or crannies where octopus may have their dens. When they find a den, the fishers extricate the octopus using a spear. More than stabbing the octopus, they fool it into grabbing the handle of the spear with their long tentacles and then simply ease them out of their den.
Soon the crowd is scattered over the enormous expanse of the reef flat, fishers roaming alone, lost in concentration with the surf shimmering behind them and the quietness broken only by the sound of the wind and waves crashing in the distance.
Octopus gleaning is the only way that I can earn money. A long time ago we could also glean for sea cucumbers, but there are no more left. Even though I have no proper fishing gear, I can still go out onto the reef flats at low tide and glean for octopus.
Octopus is really the only seafood that we women can sell. Before we started doing octopus reserves, we were only catching two or three octopus in a day, and some days we wouldn’t catch any at all. When I was young we could catch eight, fifteen, even more, in one day.
With the reserves we make a small sacrifice, but we can still glean on other reefs, and after waiting we catch more octopus – the catch is good in the days after openings. I have more money for food and for my family. For these reasons, I want to continue with the octopus reserves.
Here they gather around buyers with great bundles of octopus hanging from spears and carried by two people, or in old plastic buckets or old rice sacks. So as not to be slowed, the buyers weigh the catch in lots rather than individually, using plastic drums with the lids cut off.
A great variety of plastic basins, drums, buckets and iceboxes overflowing with octopus encircle the buyers. Later, the collection trucks arrive to take the catch to the regional capital of Toliara. A chain of men carry 50 kg rice sacks full of octopus from the buyer’s stands to the collection trucks, straining under the weight and filling the huge iceboxes with tonnes of octopus.
A manager for one of the export companies arrives with his assistant in 4x4 to check that everything is as it should be, making sure that this part of the cold chain is strong so that the octopus landed by local fishers this morning will get to Toliara fresh and eventually to the dinner plates of Europe.
Since the first temporary octopus fishery closure was trialled in 2004, this powerful management tool has been taken up by other villages along hundreds of kilometres of coastline, boosting catches and fisher incomes, sparking and building enduring support for more ambitious conservation efforts led by communities, for communities.