The world is your lobster: sustainable fishing in Madagascar?

By Stephen Long

Fishers from a small-scale lobster fishery prepare to launch their pirogue (canoe) into the surf.
Photo copyright Stephen Long.

The state of the world’s fisheries…

Sustainable fishing makes perfect sense – right? If fishers only catch what a wild population is capable of replacing, then it remains ecologically sustainable. Following this simple rule enables fishers to go out year on year, landing catch that is ecologically and economically sustainable. Simple?

However, we know that fisheries all over the world are under threat from over-fishing. In fact, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reported that in 2011 a whopping 28.8% of stocks were subject to unsustainable levels of fishing. Why? Well for fishery scientists the first problem is to determine how much can we take from a particular fishery sustainably. Then the second challenge is finding the political will among governments, the public and fishers to adopt sustainable management. Lastly, there needs to be the legislative and institutional framework to enforce regulation. These are challenges anywhere in the world, but what about in developing countries?

Developing countries: an even tougher challenge?

Fisheries in developing countries typically use smaller vessels, simpler fishing methods and sails or paddles for power. These small-scale fisheries actually employ the vast majority of the world’s fishers, providing employment and food security to some of the world’s poorest people. However, developing countries often lack the institutional capacity, political stability or financial resources to manage hundreds or even thousands of small-scale fisheries. Factors such as rapid population growth compound these issues, making small-scale fisheries in some developing countries especially vulnerable to over-exploitation. In these contexts making fisheries sustainable has to go alongside ensuring socio-economic development. In practice this probably means catching less but earning more…a tough challenge?

Lobsters in Madagascar: a classic case

Left, the ornate spiny lobster (Panulirus ornatus) and right, the scalloped spiny lobster (Panulirus homarus).
Artwork copyright Harry Stigner, used with permission.

Madagascar is one of only eight countries whose real income per head is lower now than it was in 1960, making it one of the poorest in the world. As an island nation with a rapidly growing population of 24 million people, the fisheries it relies on are under increasing pressure. In 2011 Dr Frédéric Le Manach and colleagues warned of a recipe for a food security crisis1. They found that despite increasing numbers of fishers, catches have peaked and were likely exceeding sustainable yields across the country.

The lobster fishery of south-east Madagascar is made up of around 40 communities spread along some 300 km of coastline. This is truly a small-scale fishery ̶ local people paddling wooden pirogues (canoes) to set pots made of woven palms. But, small-scale fisheries can also mean big business. Lobster exports from the fishery were worth US$ 5.1m at its peak in 2007, one of the biggest contributors to the regional economy. However, a combination of extreme poverty, the high value of lobsters and population growth has driven over-fishing, and as a result, a decline in the lobster population. Official statistics from the FAO and perceptions of fishers on the ground tell the same story – people are catching less and less lobster.

A local solution to a global problem?

In 2013 the FAO-SmartFish programme funded a British charity SEED Madagascar (and Madagascan partner ONG Azafady) to find a solution. Starting in Sainte Luce, a community of around 2,000 people where 80% of income comes from fishing, Project Oratsimba aimed to establish sustainable, community-based, lobster fishery management. The flagship measure was to introduce a 13 km2 ‘No Take Zone’ for lobster, closed for nine months of the year – the first of its kind in the Western Indian Ocean. The closure, in one of the most densely populated areas of the fishery, was timed with the peak spawning season, protecting females carrying eggs to maximise successful reproduction.

A spiny lobster (Panulirus penicillatus) caught in Sainte Luce, Madagascar.
Photo copyright Stephen Long.

Any marine biologist worth their salt will tell you that lobster have a planktonic stage of their lifecycle. A juvenile lobster freshly hatched from the egg will float in the ocean as plankton for months, guided by the current. Once they settle on reefs, perhaps hundreds of kilometres away from where they started, it will then take years to reach adult size. What this means is that the ecological benefits of a No Take Zone could be a long way off in time and distance. Can a measure like this really contribute to making a fishery sustainable, helping fishers to catch less and earn more all in a viable time frame?

What the people in Sainte Luce found was that when they opened the No Take Zone again, they briefly experienced bumper catches, supported by data collected by the community. But in this short space of time it is unlikely that the population of lobster had increased significantly locally. The explanation is probably a simple one, just the result of going fishing in one of the most productive areas of their fishery – the same bumper hauls recreational fishers all over the world experience on the first day of the season. By concentrating their fishing effort and also catch into a short space of time they changed the dynamics of the value chain. Where the buyers and merchants traditionally held the power, now they competed with each other to maximise their share of the brief bumper catches. The result? A 33% increase in the price fishers were receiving at the bottom of a value chain2 – life changing stuff in Sainte Luce.

The world is your lobster…

This might be an example of how to secure sustainable fishing in developing countries, making it economically feasible for fishers to adopt sustainable behaviours. Fisheries are complex interactions between people and nature. To find viable solutions perhaps the key is to work at a local level, finding approaches that make long-term ecological sense and, crucially, short-term economic sense. After all, hungry fishers can’t wait years for fisheries to recover or prices to increase. This small Madagascan fishery could become a model for how to make fisheries sustainable across developing countries and beyond.

Further Reading

The State of the World Fisheries and Aquaculture. FAO report, 2014.
SEED Madagascar, Project Oratsimba


1. Le Manach, F., et al (2012) Unreported fishing, hungry people and political turmoil: The recipe for a food security crisis in Madagascar. Marine Policy, 36, 218-225.
2. Long, S (2017) Short-term impacts and value of a periodic No Take Zone (NTZ) in a community-managed small-scale lobster fishery, Madagascar. PLOS ONE, 12, e0177858.

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