For the Vezo people of western Madagascar, fishing is not just a livelihood, it’s a way of life.
Subsistence fishing for turtles has been a traditional Vezo practice beyond living memory, and one that is often highly valued in Vezo communities. A family can eat well off a turtle catch for several days, providing a rich source of protein and fat, and there are many cultural rituals associated with turtle fishing that encourage respect for the captured animal, and reflect the Vezo’s intimate connection with the sea.
Turtle fishing is illegal in Madagascar; however, due to a rapidly increasing coastal population, a lack of alternative livelihoods, and the widespread decline in marine resources across the island’s waters, Vezo communities that are fishing for survival are likely to take whatever they can catch. This, in combination with a burgeoning illegal trade for turtle meat in some areas, has led to an observable decline in turtle numbers.
In response, Blue Ventures has been supporting community-led turtle nest monitoring in the Barren Isles archipelago in western Madagascar since 2011. The diverse reefs of the Barren Isles – the Indian Ocean’s largest locally managed marine area (LMMA) – are home to five species of globally threatened marine turtle, and every year many turtles visit the islands’ remote sandy beaches to dig their nests. The more data the LMMA association has on these turtle populations, the more informed their management decisions can be.
During the turtle nesting season, which starts in December each year, eight turtle nest monitoring agents rotate across three islands of the archipelago in pairs. Every night during this time they search for traces of turtle activity, and if they find a nest then they protect it and log information about it for ongoing research into local turtle populations.
Recently, we’ve been seeing an average of five turtle nests for each month we’re on the Barren Isles. When we find a nest we always make sure that it’s not too close to the water, so that it doesn’t get flooded at high tide.” – Fadoro, turtle nest monitoring agent
In the last two years, illegal smuggling of turtle meat from the Barren Isles to the nearest mainland town of Maintirano has become increasingly visible; I’ve received several reports from my colleagues and from friends in the town.
In an effort to reverse this trend, we’re working to strengthen our dialogue and relationship with the Vezo communities. The first step of this strategy was to understand the fishers’ opinions and wishes on the subject. We trained the turtle nest monitors to spend ten days per month on the mainland in order to hold community focus groups and visit the local management representatives of the Barren Isles LMMA.
In total, 34 group discussions took place between December 2017 and June 2018. The results showed that 65% of community members had noticed a decrease in turtle population, and that they thought the main reasons were the increase in fishing pressure and the turtle meat trade. Over 70% of the groups interviewed also thought that if things stay as they are, turtles will disappear from the Barren Isles.
There were divisions amongst the communities about the rights and wrongs of turtle fishing, but almost everyone agreed that while eating turtles is an integral part of Vezo culture, selling turtle meat is not. The LMMA association leaders, and most of its members, are now aware that the number of turtles has declined, and there is a growing desire for regulation to prevent the sale of turtle meat.
The focus groups also revealed that 50% of people think that Blue Ventures should facilitate community consultations about expanding the Barren Isles dina (customary community law) to cover the prohibition of the sale of turtle meat, and establish sanctions. This idea has broad support in the LMMA association, and is likely to be enacted this year. The trade in turtle meat is already illegal, but the expansion of the dina would create local ownership of the national law, enabling local enforcement of the rules.
The Vezo know that if the turtle meat trade continues then turtles will likely disappear, so the majority want to enforce the existing laws banning the turtle trade. However, they’d prefer to use dina for the enforcement and sanctions, so that it can be on their own terms.” – Fadoro, turtle nest monitoring agent
Blue Ventures is also supporting the local Vezo communities to advocate for stricter law enforcement around turtle meat sales. Despite being highly visible in Maintirano, butchers and traders of turtle meat encounter little impediment to their illegal business.
A regional representative of the Ministry of Environment recently agreed to try to bring one of the offending butchers to justice, but he managed to evade capture. Nevertheless, this move from the regional government, and the threat of penalty fines and prison sentences, seems to have reduced the sales of turtle meat in Maintirano for the time being.
Blue Ventures’ role in the Barren Isles since the creation of the LMMA in 2014 has been to provide training and guidance for the management association to be able to take back responsibility for their resources and create dina that apply to their specific needs. My hope is that our support will empower them to come to their own conclusions, based on evidence and locally collected data, and that they will be able to create informed dina to protect local turtle populations for the future.
Discover more about the Barren Isles archipelago, one of the few remaining strongholds of marine biodiversity in the western Indian Ocean.