By Emily Darling
Madagascar: the world’s “eighth continent” and fourth-largest island; a country that offers both promise and paradox for conservation. An evolutionary cradle of biodiversity, Madagascar is home to extraordinary plants and animals found nowhere else on our planet. It is also one of the world’s poorest countries. People are hungry for new roads, hospitals, schools and jobs that largely depend on natural resource development.
With colleagues from WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society), we recently surveyed the first community-led Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in Madagascar. These areas provide genuine hope for coral reef conservation and small-scale fisheries management under the shadow of emerging oil and gas development, deforestation, illegal fishing and climate change.
In recent years, Madagascar has pledged to triple the country’s MPAs while supporting a community-based approach to management. Working with local fishing communities in northwest Madagascar, WCS has developed management plans for two National Marine Parks: Ankarea and Ankivonjy. Our expedition arrived days after these two marine parks were set into law.
Touchdown in Nosy Be, an island off the northwest coast of Madagascar. Our 4WD vehicles lumber into the night through the never-ending potholes and I catch a scent of the Western Indian Ocean, our home for the next two weeks. In that time we will spend some 80 hours underwater counting more than 5,200 corals and invertebrates and over 9,000 reef fish. Our findings will provide a baseline for the newly protected reefs.
We find healthy coral communities with remarkable diversity. Live coral covers roughly 55 percent of the reefs, a substantial increase from four years ago when that figure averaged ~30 percent. Fish biomass remains at the reefs’ carrying capacity for the region, suggesting low fishing pressure and productive fish communities.
These reefs are among the best in the Western Indian Ocean, compared with three decades of surveys by WCS scientists Dr. Tim McClanahan and Dr. Nyawira Muthiga.
Not surprisingly, these impressive reefs have been a focus for WCS conservation efforts – not only for corals but for whales and dolphins too. Encouraged by the creation of the new Ankivonjy and Ankarea Marine National Parks, we must continue working to ensure their success.
Some zones are “no take” – with fishing not allowed at all – while others allow only traditional fishing gear and night fishing is forbidden. On the way to one of our dives, a pirogue (a canoe-like boat) of fishermen coming from a village far from the MPA illegally fishes a large gill net inside a no-take zone. The fishers say their net had caught and drifted into the no fishing zone.
Compliance in the world’s MPAs is notably challenging. WCS is preparing buoys to mark the no-take zones and has been working with the Ministry of Marine Resources and Fisheries to identify, train, and empower the first 40 community marine rangers in Madagascar. WCS has purchased new uniforms and patrolling equipment (boats, GPS, cameras, etc.) and plans to hold community events to provide information about the MPAs.
The new partnership between the national government and local communities has already shown results, with five illegal nets seized in Ankivonjy MPA on May 29, 2015.
This collaborative approach will ultimately serve as a model for the growing number of community-led MPAs around Madagascar. In addition WCS and partners are working to provide alternative livelihoods to local fishers, such as sea cucumber farming.
As Madagascar continues to establish a series of community-led MPAs along its nearly 5,000 km coastline, WCS – along with conservation partners Blue Ventures, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Conservation International (CI) – is moving towards a collaborative and coordinated monitoring program to document the progress of these MPAs and others around the country.
Back in the capital Antananarivo, the turquoise waters and jaw-dropping corals of Nosy Be seem another world away as I hold my breath to impossibly escape the smog and pollution of the never-ending traffic.
I see a street vendor hold up a smoked fish that is hours and hours by bush taxi from the coast. I think about the journey of that one fish, and the many more like it, and of the local communities and scientists working so hard to secure the sustainability of Madagascar’s fisheries into the future.
Dr. Emily Darling coordinates WCS’s global coral reef monitoring initiative in Kenya, Madagascar, Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Indonesia, and the Caribbean with funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. As a David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellow, Emily also investigates climate refuges for coral reef conservation. WCS has worked in Madagascar for over 30 years and employs 50 staff members. Follow Emily on Twitter at: @EmilySDarling.