By Paul Firth, Blue Ventures volunteer, Andavadoaka, Madagascar

‘Vezo Aho’ is painted proudly on the square white sail of our slender wooden pirogue as Simba, our host, tightens it into the northerly wind and bears away towards Nosy Fasy, a shallow sandbar and reef off the coast of the Vezo village of Andavadoaka.  Shanta and I were accompanying Simba and his two younger brothers on a fishing trip. Vezo pirogues are simple, hand-crafted wooden canoes; about five metres long with an outrigger and mast fashioned from local timber, locked together with rope. After we had pushed away from shore, Simba hauled up the white sail by its top corner. He then set in place a second, longer mast running diagonally up to the outer corner. A rope running from the remaining corner was handed back to the young oarsman behind me to allow the sail to loosen into or tighten against a favourable wind. But now, with the sails set and a good wind behind them, Simba sat astride the forward outrigger and helped Shanta with her Malagasy. He was a good teacher. Only being able to pick up odd scraps of conversation or what Shanta was able to translate for me, I settled instead on enjoying the ride.

The pirogues are perfectly adapted to the Vezo way of life and it’s hard to see how they could be improved. As the vessel cut silently through the clear waters I sat back and looked out onto the ocean. Other fishermen were heading to the same destination, the many sails looking like white butterflies dancing over the blue waters. Behind us we towed a second, smaller pirogue, its young captain singing confidently and beating out a percussion track on the hull of his boat. In fact, the only time he wasn’t singing was when he was underwater. There was only the slightest of swells and although the morning sun was hot, there was a refreshingly cool breeze. It was a magnificent way to spend an otherwise idle morning.

After about half an hour we reached Nosy Fasy. We anchored on the outer edge of the reef as the ebbing tide was slowly releasing it and its golden sandbar began to breach the surface. The other fishermen were arriving at the same opportune moment. Some of them opted to beach their pirogues on the emerging sands to wait for the run of the fish. Simba explained that fishing directly on the reef was forbidden by local laws but as the tide ebbed the snappers and emperors would retreat into deeper water away from the reef. Nosy Fasy quickly grew in population as well as size. About seven pirogues and 20 – 30 men were soon occupying its small shore, some of them not waiting for low tide, but instead setting seine nets from the beach. A small pirogue would row out and back, setting a circular trap and a line of men on the beach would close it tight and haul it back in. Many of these beach seiners were evidently happy with their catch and would soon make for home before Simba had set his own nets. While we waited we took small canoe-side snorkels. On the reef below there were plenty of classically colourful reef fish such as butterflyfish, damsels and sergeants but nothing that would make a good enough meal. Simba was waiting for bigger and tastier fare. So, we waited and chatted while Nosy Fasy slowly reached out to us.

Our method was gill-netting. When the time was right Simba left the larger of our pirogues anchored and skipped across to the smaller one. He began to slowly play out his net, weighted to hold bottom but supported upright in the water by floats. Now and then Simba would freedive down to adjust them. It was time for Shanta and me to find our masks and go swimming. We were able to snorkel above the gill-net which was about 10 metres below us and Simba encouraged us to splash about, causing as much commotion as possible. His young assistants bore long wooden spears which they used to poke and prod as many crevices and holes in the reef as possible. With only a short gill net the intention was to panic the fish into darting about to escape the commotion and blunder into it. From above we could see the result. Dozens of black-spot snappers were bolting from one hole to another. A turn left might mean open water but a turn right meant entrapment by the gills. A large red big-eye quickly succumbed to the inevitable and hung lifeless and sideways. The snappers would fight vigorously for a minute with short thrusting spasms but, unable to break the nets nylon grip, would also accept their fate. Moorish idols were more determined freedom fighters, endlessly thrashing and beating against the net until the young spearmen swam down carefully to release them. From my view it seemed that the smaller, more nimble fish such as the butterflies and damsels were able to deftly avoid entrapment, swimming up to the net but turning away

After about 20 minutes, Simba hauled in the net and carefully unpicked the day’s catch. Ninety per cent of the catch were snappers, although to my eye they were meagre pickings, each of them no bigger than a hand. The final tally was forty fish which was, apparently, a good day. Time again then for Simba to reset the mast and turn our canoe back into a cutter once more. To our right was Nosy Hao, a much bigger and more productive reef. We asked Simba why the fishermen didn’t head there. His reply was that Nosy Hau was up-wind. To fish there today would mean not being able to get home easily as the pirogues cannot tack into a headwind. So we settled down to catch the homeward wind and Simba continued his Malagasy lessons with Shanta; standing on the outer edge of the outrigger, accompanied only by the songs of the sea.

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Blue Ventures are an award winning marine conservation charity. On our Beyond Conservation blog you can hear voices from the front line of marine conservation.