Monday, September 2, 2013

Velondriake – To Live With The Sea

Hersister is 70. He has been a fisherman for 41 years in Andavadoaka. As a Vezo, his skin is dark from the sun and hands calloused from throwing thousands of lines and weaving hundreds of nets. When he was younger, fish and octopus were plentiful and he could easily spend a day at sea catching breakfast, lunch, and dinner for himself and his family. One day in 2002, a commercial trader arrived in town and offered to pay money to fishers for the octopus they caught. These octopuses would end up on menus in far-flung places like Europe and Asia for a pretty penny. Hersister and the rest of the fishers were not stupid – they saw an opportunity to make money for their families, and so they started to catch more octopus than necessary.

Fast-forward almost 10 years to 2013. Gina and I sat in a dark room veiled by a shifting pink curtain that hung in the doorway. In front of us sat a man in the center of a couch with a stuffed animal tucked in at his side. Behind him the wall was covered with posters of pop stars and Asian baby calendars, and a small, dirty plastic Christmas tree sat in the corner of the room to his right. This was Madagascar chic and sitting in the middle of it all was President Roger, the leader of the Velondriake LMMA and our first interviewee. (As a reminder, an LMMA is a Locally Managed Marine Area - an area of coastal ocean where resources are managed bottom-up from the local level.) Roger, a local Malagasy man, has been so successful in rallying regional community support for Velondriake that when he tried to retire from his role as president last year his followers threatened to quit the LMMA and their sustainable fishing practices. He was the perfect place to start with our questions.

As he fiddled with the toy by his side, President Roger shared that Velondriake was started in 2006 to “protect the future for young people because everything in their ocean has been pulled out” by fishers. At one time, the people in this region were migrant fishers, never staying in one place for long as they followed their catch along the coast. But when fishers like Heristser began to settle, village populations began to grow and fishing pressure grew high in certain areas. Gina and I learned how Blue Ventures introduced the idea of fisheries management to this region in 2006 with an octopus closure in Andavadoaka - the first of its kind in Madagascar. After just 6 months of closing off an area to octopus fishing, fishers were seeing a significant increase in octopus size and numbers (due in part to how quickly octopus naturally reproduce). The closure success generated interest in fisheries management up and down the coast and today, there are over 20 octopus closures in Velondriake! President Roger helps to coordinate the management of all the closures and to help educate communities on why conservation is so important.

Around 7,250 people live within the 25 villages managed by Velondriake, many of which helped to write the Dina (or fishery management Bible) for the LMMA. After President Roger, we interviewed Velondriake regional presidents (north, central, and south), some leaders of village-level Velondriake committees and committee members - all of them are fishermen. For a place like the southwestern region of Madagascar where the land is too dry for agriculture and most villages are extremely isolated, fishing is their main source of income and food – they all understand that without the ocean, life is not possible here.

Hersister thinks that Velondriake is working to protect resources, but he is concerned because he knows people are still stealing from the closed areas; people are still breaking the rules. There will always be rules broken when people are so poor.

Gina and I visited a different LMMA, Teariake, just north of Velondriake in the town of Morombe. Management efforts have been less successful in Teariake, where it is common to steal from octopus closures and banned fishing methods (like beach seining and poison fishing) still occur. In its defense, Teariake is in its infancy, started just two years ago by an NGO call Cout. We were excited for this visit because it celebrated the opening of an octopus closure. Opening days were always exciting because fishers were rewarded for their patience by catching fat and plentiful octopus given two months to ripen. However, our first interview in Teariake told us that so much stealing occurred that most fishers would visit Velondriake’s octopus opening instead – no one expected to catch anything special.

Come opening day, Gina and I were elbow deep in buckets of octopus, helping to weigh and sex the catch. Not many fishers had shown up that day and the catch was nothing exceptional, but we were still impressed when handling the gooey, dead, alien-like creatures that support thousands of livelihoods. Whether or not it was the most successful octopus closure in the region, people were happy because there are still octopus in the sea. We found ourselves that night celebrating the day’s bounty in a local Malagasy karaoke bar learning local dance moves and acquiring a taste for watered-down rum. Here’s one to Hersister.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Can you feel the love tonight...

Picture this: the sky is on fire with scorching orange and soft pink light as our jeep passes through deserts and forests of plump misshapen trees, and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” blasts from our jeep speakers. We are witnessing what seems like the longest sunset in the history of all dying days; just as we think the giant orange sun is about to disappear, we drive over the next horizon and buy ourselves some time. As we round the last corner of the baobab forest, the ocean village of Andavadoaka creeps into sight and we spot our camp with Blue Ventures atop a hill surrounded by a white sandy beach. When we reach the top of the hill, we watch with satisfaction as the sun sinks beneath the sea and towards all those we love and miss on the other side of the earth.

We’d been driving for hours in a jeep on tumbling roads of sand, our heads bobbing about as if we’d been listening to rock music instead of the fantastic mix of Celine Dion and old school Britney Spears our driver played for us. Dirt, sand, and salt powdered our skin like a French dessert, and I could imagine a voice announcing to all of Madagascar: coming right up! Andavadoaka’s finest and freshest order of vaza! Vaza is the Malagasy word for foreigner, which we certainly felt with our complete lack of understanding for local languages and butter-soft white skin. But as that sun was setting, the last thing on anyone’s mind was what made us different – we had arrived to our new home for the next three weeks and only felt welcomed.

Once inside the wooden fence that circled the Blue Ventures research site, we were met with warm smiles and many British accents as we introduced ourselves to our roommates, the other 16 volunteers, and the Blue Ventures (BV) staff. As Independent Researchers, Gina and I are on different schedules than the other volunteers and will spend the next few days carving out what our exact schedule will look like while in the Southwest region. We are meeting with BV staff members Minnie and Annabel tonight to discuss details of using a translator to test our survey in the village, which fishery managers to interview, and the possibility of visiting other LMMAs that neighbor Velondriake.

In the two days we’ve had to settle and recuperate before diving into our research objectives, we’ve done our best to get a sense of life in Madagascar. Yesterday we awoke to a rising sun illuminating a sea already full of fishers. By 8AM, Gina and I joined them, along with another volunteer from Poland, Ana. The three us of sat snuggly between two other fishers in a wooden pirogue balanced with an outrigger and with its sail down. The two men paddled without tiring across an expanse of shallow clear water that appeared lifeless except for the bursts of red sea stars we passed over quickly. Once in about 50 feet of water, Bruno, the eldest fisher, lowered a green line baited with sardine overboard and quickly pulled it back to the boat with his hands. He had two lines going at a time. We were told that each fisher had their “spot” within the LMMA, and that day, we visited three. After five hours on the water, we had caught five fish: one sickeled barracuda, a triggerfish, an emperor fish, and two blue-striped jacks. Florian, the younger fisher who spoke some English and wore a unicorn shirt (!), taught us the Malagasy names for the fish and laughed whenever we did things like say goodbye to the fish that were killed. “Veloma fia,” we said as he squeezed the gills of the barracuda shut, a high pitched sucking sound coming from the fish as its tail beat rapidly against the wooden side of the boat. When the beating stopped, goodbye fish, we would say again. At some point along our journey our boat sprung a leak, and so I found myself bailing out the water from the boat as we sailed up onto the sandy shore greeted by the children that seemed to never leave. That night after regaling our comrades with our fishing stories at dinner, we enjoyed a “party night” that happens every Saturday. Our party mainly consisted of learning some local Malagasy dance moves, playing with the kids that peeked their heads above the window sill to watch us dance, and witnessing the most epic dance-off between a Malagasy fisher and British doctor to the tune of Michael Jackson. They both won.

In the next few days, we look forward to meeting our Malagasy translator, Goff, who grew up as a fisher in Andavadoaka and will help translate our survey questions and arrange interviews in the village. We hope to speak with the president of the Velondriake LMMA as soon as possible! He will be in town on Friday for a very exciting opening of an octopus reserve site that has been closed since June – we couldn’t be happier about the timing of our expedition. But for now, I am off to dip into the ocean with the sun. Veloma!

Thursday, August 15, 2013

One Step Closer!

Six times the engine purred before the seventh ignition rumbled life into the van and sent us riding into our first night in Madagascar. We had endured 24 hours of travel, from D.C. to Detroit, to Paris, and finally to Antananarivo, the capitol city in Madagascar. We sat in a van with a family of other sleepy travelers, who spoke foreign words and giggled as we did when the van finally started. While the night brought little sleep, the next day consisted of a plane ride to Toliara and a birds-eye view of this beautiful sunlit island country. Gina and I drank in the deep red soil, the highland plateaus, the lush green coastline where the land and sea shared a wet kiss, and the wetlands moving with fishers and groups of children – all of it too much to take seriously. Had we actually arrived?

Two weeks earlier, we had received an email that confirmed our wildest hopes: we would be able to work with the non-profit organization, Blue Ventures, on a research project on community fisheries in Madagascar! Blue Ventures has a solid reputation with the local Malagasy people and would be able connect us with fishers and fishery managers who could answer our questions: How are fisheries managed at the community-level and is this management effective? Ultimately, Gina and I along with the rest of our Master’s Group Project team (Katie, Kristen, and Pablo!) would like to gather data like this for the entire world using an online survey. For the time being, our research in Madagascar would take place at the Blue Ventures research site in Andavadoaka, where volunteers and independent researchers have participated in conservation efforts since 2001. This research is a part of a greater interest in community-based fisheries in the Western Indian Ocean in collaboration with Rare, an international non-profit conservation group.

Two acronyms you should become familiar with are TURF and LMMA (since we will use these relentlessly for the rest of our blog J). Both of these acronyms are areas in the ocean set aside for local-level fishery management. T-U-R-F stands for ‘Territorial User Rights in Fisheries’ and can be thought of as an area in the ocean defined by a boundary of some kind that allows community members exclusive rights to use the fish and other resources within the boundary. L-M-M-A stands for ‘Locally Managed Marine Area’ and, as far as we can tell, is similarly defined as a TURF in Madagascar. The village we are conducting our research in, Andavadoaka, is a part of the largest LMMA in the Indian Ocean, Velondriake!

But even though we are headed to Andavadoaka tomorrow, it seems like we are as far from the remote desert village by the sea as we were when we were in America. In Toliara, where we are now, the streets are crowded with people dressed in tattered clothes and eager to give you rides in their pousse pousee (pronounced poose-poose). We have been approached several times by hands eagerly reaching for our white skin, asking for money. While Madagascar is undoubtedly beautiful from where you look perched in the clouds, there are some major public health and welfare issues that face you stark cold on the ground. However, beneath the grimy reputation Toliara has earned from travel guides, we have found moments of kindness and patience in every corner. I can only imagine how hilarious we looked trying to buy a mosquito coil in a crowded local shop; we pretend to know French by saying “mosquito” with a French accent while swirling our finger to indicate a coil. The shopkeepers must be experts at charades for within two minutes we made our purchase! And let’s not get started on our (in)ability to speak the local language of Malagasy...

We are interested to see what life will be like in Andavadoaka, where the village is so far removed from infrastructure there is absolutely no government involvement in the community. Did I mention we have an 8 hour four-wheel drive ride tomorrow? Our mantra for the trip so far?  Just one step closer!! We’ll check in once we get to our research site and catch you up on life by the Indian Ocean!


For more information on our Master’s Thesis Group Project, please feel free to visit our website,

(The view from a pousse pousse! Riding around Toliara.)