A gift from the ancestors

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by Dr Garth Cripps, Senior Conservation Scientist, Madagascar

Portuguese sailors first noted the extensive coral reefs and rocky shoals of the Barren Isles on their charts at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Five hundred years later, the marine diversity of the remote archipelago still remains almost completely unknown to science. But while our knowledge of the isles has stood still, their environmental and human context has changed dramatically.

When two families of Sara migrants from Anakao (1,500 km to the south) first arrived here in the early nineteen sixties, they found the islands devoid of people. Until the early nineties these families were essentially the only people to fish the area, as the local Vezo Sakalava preferred to stay closer to the coast and held the isles sacred – a gift from their ancestors.

First dives yield abundant fish life

Vezo fishers from the south west, who also seasonally travelled up the coast to fish the area, began to arrive in larger numbers in the early 2000’s. By 2006, traditional Vezo migrants numbered in the thousands. They live for most of the year on the isles, sometimes with hundreds crowding onto narrow sand banks, 20 – 40 km offshore. Here there is no drinking water or firewood, nor protection from the unrelenting sun and wind.

What attracts them to the Barren Isles? Until 2006, there was still good shark and sea cucumber fishing here. Dried shark fins and sea cucumber (trepang) fetch high prices on the Asian markets, high enough even for traditional fishers in remote Madagascar to make a good living from them. With fish stocks collapsing in their home areas and no other livelihood but fishing, they see migrating to the Barren Isles as a way out of poverty.

The still productive fishing grounds of the Barren Isles not only attracted traditional fishers, but also illegal dive teams equipped with scuba gear. They often work from a mother ship – an old trawler or a motorized boutre – using two to three motorized skiffs to access the reefs. Diving for sea cucumbers using scuba gear is illegal in Madagascar. The political crisis that began in 2009 has meant that teams now work with impunity and there have been as many as five ships exploiting the Barren Isles at one time.

A pirogue boat, but are too many now sailing in the Barren Isles?

Shark fishermen working for wealthy bosses from northern cities such as Mahajunga use motorized boats and ‘barrage’ nets, weighted gill nets one to two kilometres long, to target guitar fish. As for the sea cucumbers, traditional fishers cannot compete and are powerless to stop the pillaging of their ancestral fishing grounds.

In the Mozambique Channel, Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) industrial trawlers target sharks for their valuable liver oil. These trawlers come from industrialised countries such as Spain, and operate with complete freedom as the poorer countries such as Madagascar and Mozambique cannot patrol their waters. The damage IUUs do to shark populations is likely to dwarf that caused by the traditional fishers.

Marine biologist Charlie Gough and expedition photographer Garth Cripps show that surveying shorebirds is not all hard work!

The intensity of exploitation, by both traditional Vezo fishers and fishermen from the cities, has rapidly stripped out sea cucumber and sharks from the Barren Isles. By 2009 traditional migrant fishers had already recognized a sharp decline in fishing and began moving further along the western coast, seeking still unexploited fishing grounds.

The outlook is not completely bleak though. Thanks to their isolation, the coral reef habitats are still exceptionally healthy. Aerial surveying of the Barren Isles in 2009 showed that the area harbours an extraordinary diversity of marine mega-fauna, from leatherback turtles to several species of dolphins. While the number of Vezo migrants arriving in the isles has increased dramatically, the Barren Isles seascape is vast and the resident population small and strongly motivated to better manage their fisheries and conserve their marine biodiversity. We still have the time to conserve the Barren Isles.

We’ll never regain the natural state of the Barren Isles that the Portuguese sailors first saw, nor even the first Sara families who arrived in the isles fifty years ago. But we can preserve their present exceptional natural beauty – and leave our children a gift still worthy of the ancestors.

About Garth
A childhood spent in the Zambezi valley and other remote parts of Zimbabwe doesn’t necessarily lead to a career in marine conservation, but it does give you a love of nature and wild places. I first came to Madagascar in 2006 to help create Velondriake – Madagascar’s first community-managed marine protected area – and discovered just such a place. But I soon learnt that the stark beauty of south west Madagascar and the seemingly timeless, seafaring life of the Vezo people belie enormous human and conservation challenges. The Vezo communities are amongst the world’s poorest and their sole livelihood is fishing. The ecosystems underpinning these fisheries are increasingly threatened, from local overfishing to global climate change and ocean acidification. I’m particularly interested in the human story behind conservation and followed the Vezo migration to the Barren Isles in 2009. Their migration epitomises many of the challenges that they face: driven by poverty and the collapse of their local fisheries, they sail thousands of kilometres from their homes to find still productive fishing grounds. These only exist still in the most remote of areas, where the migrants live on the very margin of society. I came to the Barren Isles again a year later to study the feasibility of creating a community-managed marine protected area here. A great diversity of habitats comprises the Barren Isles seascape, from far offshore coral reefs to extensive mangrove forests. Barely anything is known of them. With this expedition we can begin to collect the scientific information needed to conserve the greater Barren Isles seascape. More than that, we need to show a wide audience the richness of Madagascar’s marine life and how critical it is to human wellbeing. And make a step towards living with the sea, not against it. Hopefully the Zambezi sharks* will leave us in peace while we try to do it.

 *Southern African name for a bull shark

Garth Cripps

About Garth Cripps

Garth leads our blue forests project, leveraging the enormous value of mangrove forests from supporting fisheries to sequestering carbon dioxide in order to protect these extraordinary ecosystems. He has a strong interest in using photography to tell the human story behind conservation.