This is a guest post by Elyse Dankoski, a neurobiologist at the University of North Carolina. She recently spent 3 months in southeast Madagascar volunteering with Azafady’s Conservation Programme.
This fall, I lived in a small community on the southeast coast of Madagascar called Sainte Luce. Sainte Luce is remote even by Madagascar’s standards, and its economy depends heavily on one of its few profitable resources: lobsters. Eight species of spiny lobster and slipper lobster can be caught in the fishing waters surrounding Sainte Luce, and over 80% of households list lobster fishing as their primary source of income. Unfortunately, this income is becoming harder and harder to earn because overfishing has decimated the lobster population.
I talked to Stephen Long about his work with Project Oratsimba, a program that is trying to protect the local lobster population. Project Oratsimba is run by the British-Malagasy NGO Azafady and funded by FAO-SmartFish. Rather than using a top-down approach to impose rules on fishermen, the program provides guidance, support, and resources to foster community-led fishery management for a sustainable future. By helping the community take management responsibility for their fishery, the project hopes to create a self-sustaining solution that benefits people and lobsters alike.
LOBSTER ECONOMY AND ECOLOGY
Lobsters have provided an important source of income in southeast Madagascar for several decades, but overfishing has led to a significant reduction in lobster populations and annual catches throughout the region. Each year, fishermen put in increasingly high effort to bring in increasingly small catches. Lobsters in this region fetch nearly $5 per kilogram, which creates an opportunity for substantial income in a country where the average person makes only $1 per day. The high value of lobster encourages overfishing of young lobsters and females carrying eggs, which exacerbates the decline in population.
Overfishing isn’t just bad for the incomes of fishermen—it’s bad for the future of the entire lobster population. The oldest, largest lobsters in the population have already been caught and sold. Now, fishermen make up for the lost profit by selling more of the smaller, younger lobsters. “In general, lobsters take a few years to reach sexual maturity and have a long pelagic, planktonic stage of their lifecycle. So fisheries can easily overexploit them by removing individuals from the population before they spawn,” Stephen told me. The pelagic aspect of the lobster lifecycle means that overfishing in one area will also have negative effects on surrounding fisheries on a regional scale.
Because declining lobster populations directly affect their source of income, most of Sainte Luce’s fishermen are willing to adopt measures to improve sustainable fishing in their community. “A small lobster is a short term economic gain, but a long term economic and ecological detriment,” Steve explains. A good rule of thumb is that in 2 years, a lobster will double in size, but triple in its weight and value.
Phase I of Project Oratsimba focused on giving the fishing community in Sainte Luce the resources it needs to sustainably manage their lobster fishery. An elected committee developed a set of community rules, called a dina, that
- Established a 13 km2 No Take Zone for lobsters where fishing is prohibited for 10 months each year
- Set a minimum size of 20 cm for all local lobster catches
- Banned the capture and sale of female lobsters that are carrying eggs
In Phase II, Project Oratsimba conducted research to evaluate the impact of the dina after it had been in effect for one year. When the community reopened the No Take Zone, there was a brief increase in catches relative to fishing effort, boosting income a time of year when sea conditions are usually poor and incomes low. Larger catches also increase competition between lobster purchasers, which increases the price per kilogram. Together, these effects make it economically feasible for the community to adopt sustainable measures. Another important step in Phase II was to legalize the dina as an official set of laws in Sainte Luce, since these measures will only improve sustainability if they can be enforced over a long period of time.
Changes in a single fishery are not enough to produce long term results. The program’s next goal is to reproduce its achievements in nearby fishing communities.
“Project Oratsimba has developed a replicable model for sustainable, community-based fishery management. However, this is just the first step. The key to long term success is replication at a regional level – this is what Phase III aims to do,” said Stephen.
Lobsters are important to marine ecosystems, but they are also an important source of income in one of the world’s poorest countries. Project Oratsimba’s approach to improving lobster populations works because it engages a community whose livelihoods are at stake. This work is a great example of how holistic natural resource management integrates ecological and economic motives to create a long-term, successful solution.