By Brian Jones, Community Research Coordinator, Belo-sur-mer, Madagascar. It’s 12:30am, and I’ve just finished talking to myself in the mirror of my hotel room, nestled in a corner of what is probably the best watered garden in all of Mombasa, Kenya, at the luxurious White Sands Resort. The advantage of presenting on the 3rd day of a 4 day symposium is that you have the opportunity to integrate information and points of debate from the previous two days of presentations and discussions. The disadvantage is that your well-rehearsed, perfectly crafted powerpoint presentation changes roughly every hour, on the hour, as you think of other interesting points you want to add in response to conversations you’ve been having during the coffee breaks and others’ presentations. The stopwatch on my cellphone tells me that I’ve been blabbering to my red-eyed audience of one about mangroves, migrant fishermen, and fish biomass for approximately 45 minutes, which is bad news as I only have 30 minutes to present tomorrow morning to a roomful of colleagues from throughout the Western Indian Ocean region. Some of the people who will be listening to my talk were publishing peer-reviewed papers on marine protected areas (MPAs) and their effects on fisheries when I was still learning to tie my shoes. The word “intimidating” doesn’t quite do it justice.
I’ve found myself here in beautiful, coastal Mombasa to attend a four day symposium, organized by the Western Indian Ocean Marine Science Association (WIOMSA) and ReCoMaP, an EU funded project to promote coastal zone management, on the role of MPAs in managing coastal fisheries. It’s an appropriate location. The turquoise water washing up on the beautiful white sand beaches directly in front of our hotel is some of the best protected water in the Western Indian Ocean. The Mombasa Marine Park, a complete no-take reserve established in 1989, is one of the oldest, and best studied MPAs in the region. The benefits of protection from fishing are apparent, as a quick snorkel a few hundred meters off-shore treats the amateur duck-diver to schools of snappers, sweetlips, surgeonfish and even the occasional grouper weaving in and out of the massive porites bommies. The sea cucumbers, highly prized on the Asian export market, lie piled on top of each other in water just 2 meters deep- a testament to a decades-long ban on extractive activities within the park boundaries.
I’ve been invited to represent Blue Ventures, and present the progress of our project in Western Madagascar, working with the Madagascar National Parks Service (MNP) to establish what will be one of the Indian Ocean’s largest marine protected areas. I’m not alone in representing BV, as three of my colleagues, two PhDs from the US, Tom Oliver and Kirsten Oleson, and a Malagasy scientist named Bienvenue, have come along as well, and have just presented their groundbreaking work in assessing the economic, biological and social benefits of the establishment of temporary no-take zones, aimed at protecting octopus populations during key life history stages, in Southwest Madagascar. Their presentation couldn’t have been more apropos, as themes recurring throughout the symposium have been the importance of effective community management of coastal and marine resources, as well as the importance of conservation providing clear economic benefits to stakeholder populations. Their study has shown that these short-term closures, which have been completely community-run, have provided both tangible economic benefits to local communities, benefited wild populations of octopus, and increased community cooperation and cohesion. A veritable trifecta of conservation success. This is heady stuff.
My presentation comes and goes, and, through a combination of a quickened pace (probably due more to my elevated heart rate than any sort of strategic calculation of pacing) and bits of blabber left out here and there, I hit my 30 minute target right on the nose. My concerns that perhaps it had been an incomprehensible jumble are soon assuaged as many of the participants approach me at the coffee break and compliment me on what was a very interesting presentation (their words, not mine). I suppose it’s more due to the fact that our project is terribly interesting, than to any sort of superior presentation skills I may possess, but the compliments soak in nonetheless (along with a cold Tusker lager before dinner, just to err on the side of caution) and slowly chase the last lingering traces of stress from my mind.
In our project in Western Madagascar, we’re dealing with a variety of issues that have been discussed in this symposium: How to manage populations of itinerant fishermen, and integrate them into the MPA establishment process; How to find a compromise between grass-roots community management and the more exclusive nature of a national marine park; The applicability of no-take marine reserves to near-shore habitats such as seagrass, mud, and mangrove forests. One of the things I’ve realized throughout the course of this symposium is that no one really has solid answers to any of these questions, and that, despite our relative youth and newness on the scene, Blue Ventures really is on the cutting edge of marine conservation in the WIO.
Of course, that’s not to say we’re the only ones who are getting it right. WCS in Kenya has recognized the effectiveness of community-based management, and has been setting up LMMAs (Locally Managed Marine Areas) along the Kenyan coast with great success for the past four years. Conservation International has taken the BV model of temporary octopus reserves and trialed it with wild success in the Northeast of Madagascar, leaving neighbouring communities requesting their assistance to set up more. WWF in Tanzania is working with community management associations to take control of their resources and build management capacity. CORDIO East Africa is undertaking in-depth research on the drivers, conflicts and opportunities associated with the migration of fishermen up and down the East African coast in between the countries of Mozambique, Tanzania and Kenya. It’s not a stretch of the imagination to say that the Western Indian Ocean is coming to the forefront in the world of coastal and marine conservation.