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Last Updated: Friday, 25 July, 2003, 00:28 GMT 01:28 UK
Madagascar's fishy problem
By Richard Hamilton
BBC, Madagascar

Madagascan woman
Fishing is part of Madagascar's culture
In the small village of Anakao on the south-west coast of Madagascar, near the port of Tulear, the Vezo fishermen go out to sea in their pirogues or canoes with sails looking for their catch.

The women wade out into the coral.

They venture knee-deep into the water carrying long sticks looking for octopus and sea cucumbers.

It has always been a traditional activity here for the women, but now over the last few years or so things have begun to change

"Since about 1990 the pressure on sea cucumber stocks became very much more important as markets opened up for export to Asia, and particularly Hong Kong," says a marine conservation expert, Mr Andrew Cooke.

Sea cucumber

Many of Madagascar's famous animals and plants are threatened with extinction due to the destruction of the island's rainforest.

Now experts like Mr Cooke are warning that if the women continue to hunt for these fish, they will destroy the marine habitat, too.

Mr Cooke says there are some very real threats facing fish stocks and the coral reef.

"This led, for example in the case of Anakao, to very intense pressure on the sea cucumber and that involved fisherman walking onto the reefs at low tide, and also diving onto reefs at high tide, pulling up stones and doing all they could to extract the sea cucumber".

"This damaged the reef to some degree," says Mr Cooke.

"And then coupled with that, there developed a very important octopus fishery... this is highly destructive to the coral because fisherman walk at low tide and lever up coral branches in order to get at the octopus which hide in holes.

"So the two fisheries combined have led to a marked degradation of the reef flats around Anakao," the marine conservation expert says.


Conservationists have come up with the idea of offering the women an alternative way of making a living by getting them to make clothes which they sell to tourists.
It is difficult to change because we only know one way of life and that is fishing
Regis Robesson
Mayor of Anakao

They hope it will relieve the pressure on creatures like the sea cucumber.

But Angeline, the head of the women's association says they still want to fish.

"In the morning the women go out onto the reef to fish. They look for octopus, squid and sea cucumbers, but in the evenings they make T-shirts, shorts and so on.

"We hope to sell them to tourists so we can make a bit of money," Angeline says.

Mayor's dilemma

On the shores of Anakao, after the fishermen had hauled up an enormous meru fish onto the beach and were cutting it up for the market, I met the mayor of the village, Regis Robesson.

He has the difficult job of persuading local people not to exhaust their fish stocks.
Pirogues and fishing canoes are part of a treasured possession

"Here we have a lot of projects to preserve the environment. And we have experts who say: 'do this and do not do that'. And it is good because we did not know what to do".

"But it is difficult to change because we only know one way of life and that is fishing. We have never known anything else. We were born to be fishermen".

"So we must try to keep it that way - we love fishing - it is our most treasured possession; it is our culture," says Mayor Robesson.

And that seems to be the problem facing Madagascar.

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