Coastal communities in southwest Madagascar depend on marine resources for income and food. Community-based aquaculture is showing promise as a way to diversify livelihoods for this region. A partnership developed in 2009 between conservation NGOs and a private sector seafood export company led to the creation of a mariculture project focusing on sea cucumbers (sandfish: Holothuria scabra) and red seaweed (cottonii: Kappaphycus alvarezii). Within the Velondriake Marine Protected Area (MPA), teams of farmers, often families, grow seaweed on lines in shallow near-shore water, harvesting on 45-day cycles, before drying and selling on to the collection company. Sea cucumbers are reared in an industrial hatchery before being transferred to pens managed by the community when they have reached a few centimeters in length. They are harvested after about nine months. The project serves a number of purposes. First, it provides fishers with a new income source making households more resilient to shocks or changes in livelihood activities. Second, it reduces pressure on local fisheries, as fishers reduce effort and/or eventually abandon fishing entirely. Third, it builds buy-in for conservation from fishing communities -- they feel they are being offered an alternative, rather than simply having fishing activity restricted. Finally, it serves as a platform for cooperation between fishers and the largest seafood collection company in the area, which has knock-on benefits for management of other key fisheries, such as octopus.
Coastal communities in southwest Madagascar are almost entirely dependent on fishing for income and livelihoods. Despite a lack of data, small-scale fisheries along this coast are widely acknowledged to be in decline. Most pronounced has been the near disappearance of sharks and sea cucumbers, harvested for lucrative export markets. Resident reef fish, however, are also reported by fishers and recreational divers to have greatly declined. Since 2004, communities along this coast have been establishing short-term ( -7 month) closures of octopus fishing grounds. These have proven popular, and have even led to the establishment of permanent marine reserves by some villages. In most cases however, fishers consider permanent reserves too ambitious, due to the associated cost of closing fishing grounds. Alternative activities are needed. Developing alternatives in southwest Madagascar proves daunting: tourism is underdeveloped, infrastructure (namely roads and electricity) is almost nonexistent, and the majority of the population is illiterate. The climate is extremely dry, and the soil inhospitable, rendering agriculture unviable for most. A successful alternative activity would ideally: not require formal education; be low-tech and not require electricity; and focus on a product that can be stored for an extended period before reaching market.
There are five key components in this system:
- Research institutions who developed sea cucumber rearing technology;
- A private sector partner who has invested in taking sea cucumber and seaweed aquaculture to scale;
- Village-based fishers/farmers who grow sea cucumbers and seaweed to a marketable size;
- NGOs that provide technical support to village-based fisher/farmers; and,
- The funders underpinning the pilot and development phases of these projects.
This project builds on a body of research that has been developing since the late 1990s. Together, the University of Mons-Hainaut, the Free University of Bruxelles and the University of Toliara’s Marine Institute have been investigating aquaculture activities suitable for Madagascar. Among the possibilities they explored was a species of sea cucumber (H. scabra), which is in high demand in Asian markets. They successfully developed a method for rearing in situ, thus opening the door to large-scale production of juveniles. This meant that an aquaculture operation would not have to rely on the collection of juveniles from the depleted wild stock. A private company, Madagascar Holothurie (MH), was formed in 2007 and trials began of growing juvenile sea cucumbers to a marketable size in the field. Results of these trials were promising. In 2009, MH was reorganized into a new private company, Indian Ocean Trepang (IOT) and funding was secured from Investors and Partners (I amp P) to develop a large-scale hatchery. This initial investment was contingent on IOT committing to village-based farmers producing at least 30% of the marketable sea cucumbers, with the remainder produced by farms tended by IOT staff. In 2011, the seafood collection company COPEFRITO began trials of seaweed aquaculture in parallel to the farming of sea cucumbers. It is important to note that COPEFRITO and IOT have the same General Director and are thus essentially different branches of the same entity. Equally important to note is the fact that COPEFRITO had been actively engaging with fishing communities in octopus fishery management since 2004, through support of temporary closures of octopus fishing grounds. IOT/COPEFRITO formed a partnership with two NGOs, Blue Ventures Conservation and TransMad Development, whose role is to provide technical support to village-based sea cucumber and seaweed farmers. Support focuses on working with farmers to improve production techniques, proactively prevent disease in seaweed lines, and resolve conflicts that may arise. NGO partners also organize training sessions in basic small-business skills.
The development of this project has been a learning process for all involved. Key lessons learned can be roughly grouped into three categories, which have significant overlap:
- Project design
A wealth of technical information has been gained into improving production, reducing theft and avoiding common pitfalls, a lot of which is highly context-specific. A general lesson taken from this process, however, is that all stakeholders must be actively engaged, flexible and willing to adapt, and conscious that there is a steep learning curve involved. This is especially true when developing a new technology like sea cucumber aquaculture. In project design, it is important to be realistic about timeframes, and funders should be willing to make relatively long-term investments. In the case of aquaculture in southwest Madagascar, a timeframe of 10-15 years for NGO support to be phased out is likely appropriate. It is also important to be frank about whether the activity is truly an “alternative livelihood”—the Holy Grail in conservation and development circles—or if it is merely a way to diversify or supplement livelihoods. Finally, in developing functional partnerships between diverse stakeholders—fishing communities, private sector actors, NGOs and research institutions—it is important to understand the different interests and points of view involved. Stating these explicitly, and coming to a common understanding at the beginning of the project is crucial. Ideally, this understanding would be formalized in a Memorandum of Understanding.
Within the Velondriake MPA—which covers approximately 40 km of coast, includes 25 villages and has a population of approximately 11,000—there are currently 48 sea cucumber farmer teams (total membership 145 people) in four villages and 242 seaweed farmers in 14 villages. Approximately half of farmers are women. The project is still in the development phase. In the Velondriake MPA, sea cucumber farmers make an average of $17 USD/month and seaweed farmers average $6 USD/month. These averages reflect the fact that many farmers are new, and their production is still very low. Established, productive farmers are able to earn approximately $80 USD/month-- 60% more than Madagascar’s official minimum wage. Within the next five years, the project aims to have at least 240 seaweed farmers and 140 teams of sea cucumber farmers earning an average of $60 USD/month and $80 USD/month, respectively. For most, aquaculture serves as a supplementary activity to fishing. Some farmers have expressed willingness to completely abandon fishing as their primary livelihood as their production improves. Anecdotally, fishers report reducing their fishing effort in the interest of tending to their plots. This reduction in fishing effort has yet to be quantified, but may represent a significant relief of pressure from fish stocks as aquaculture continues to scale up within the MPA.