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Feasibility study on the protection and management of the Barren Isles ecosystem, Madagascar

  • Thursday, 30 June 2011 23:00
Cripps, G. - Blue Ventures Conservation Report


Biodiversity conservation value

The Barren Isles coastal and marine ecosystem is made up of a great diversity of habitats, from deep oceanic waters immediately off the continental shelf, to deep, far offshore reefs and several different forms of shallower coral reefs, to extensive mangrove forests, estuarine marshes, wetlands and coastal dunes backed up by dense semi-humid tropical forest. These habitats harbour several species of exceptional conservation value, including:
Five of the world‘s seven marine turtle species. All five of these are globally threatened with extinction, four of them nest within the Barren Isles coastal and marine ecosystem;

  • The endemic and endangered Madagascar heron (Ardea humbloti) and a regionally important nesting colony of the Roseate tern (Sterna dougallii);

  • A number of charismatic mega-fauna, including sharks, humpback whales and several species of dolphin;

  • The coelacanth (Latimeria chalumnae), which is a Critically Endangered species.

At the ecosystem level, the coral reef habitats of the Barren Isles are diverse and productive, considered to be representative of amongst the healthiest reefs in the country, and supporting a high coral reef fish biomass. In large part due to their remoteness and offshore isolation, the reefs of the Barren Isles have not suffered many of the stresses that have widely degraded coral reefs elsewhere in Madagascar and the Western Indian Ocean.The relative absence of direct anthropogenic stresses has enhanced the resilience of these ecosystems, and they have not shown the same vulnerability to bleaching as most other habitats in South West Madagascar.

Socio-economic importance

As well as harbouring an exceptional biodiversity, the Barren Isles are an economic and cultural lifeline to traditional fishers. The rich and diverse habitats within the Barren Islands coastal and marine ecosystem support a productive artisanal pelagic fishery. The islands are sacred to the local Sakalava Vezo people, who regard them as being a gift from their ancestors. The Barren Islands‘ extensive reef systems are an important fishing ground for the migratory Sara clan of Vezo as well as the local Sakalava Vezo fishers, of whom the latter travel the length of the west coast of Madagascar to exploit the shark and sea cucumber fisheries. Faced with the unabated decline of marine resources and deepening poverty in their home villages, increasingly large numbers of Vezo migrants are now arriving in the Barren Islands. For these migrants and the local traditional fishers, living a vulnerable and marginalised offshore existence on the very edge of Madagascar‘s economy and society, the still healthy waters of the Barren Islands ecosystem underpins some of the few remaining productive fisheries accessible to them and forms the bedrock of their livelihoods.

Unfortunately the fishery resources and biodiversity of the Barren Isles ecosystem are threatened by open-access to these resources and their uncontrolled exploitation. Local natural resource stakeholders have no system of governance that would enable them to protect and manage their resources. They find themselves in a situation where their resources are over-exploited by outside artisanal fishers, where highly endangered species such as turtles are being killed-off, where keystone species such as sharks and sea cucumbers are being stripped out of the ecosystem and where outside interests are mining the isles for phosphate. All of these actions degrade the natural resources on which the local people depend and diminish their potential to cope with future climate change through ecosystem-based adaption.

Conservation planning

On the other hand the natural resources of the Barren Isles ecosystem present tremendous natural assets that, if properly capitalized on, could bring conservation financing and job opportunities to local people. Examples of this include: the business development of the already existing traditional pelagic fishery, the generation of carbon credits through the conservation of the extensive mangrove forests present, and the development of sustainable aquaculture businesses.

If the local communities are to be able to stop the degradation of their natural resources and realise the full value of them, effective local governance and management must first be put into place. This could be achieved through the establishment of a community- co-managed Marine Protected Area (MPA) that protects the Barren Isles. The creation and formalisation of the Barren Isles MPA will empower the local communities to combat the above threats and to become effective managers of their resources by developing community-based natural resource management within the larger Barren Isles ecosystem.

The establishment of a functioning local management structure with effective resource governance is a prerequisite to the establishment of the MPA. Such institutions will also enable the local communities, in the long term, to catalyse and develop other projects, such as sustainable fisheries, mangrove REDD projects and sea cucumber farming.

Over the last five years local actors have already been working with the local communities to protect the biodiversity of the Barren Isles, particularly that of the marine turtles, and have already made significant steps towards this. This began with the formation of the Barren Isles Turtle Conservation Project (BITCP, part of the Interdisciplinary network for the sustainable management of marine biodiversity) in October 2005, which had the specific goal of conserving the marine turtles of the Barren Isles. In 2008 the BITCP assisted the Maintirano community in establishing a community association- ―Melaky Miaro ny Tontolo an-Driakany (MMTD) - which has as its main objective the protection of the marine biodiversity of the Melaky region.

It is recommended that the creation and management of the Barren Isles MPA should be made up of six community-based activities that will consolidate and build on the existing accomplishments of the local association MMTD and the BITCP:

1. Community management structure The establishment of an effective community management structure that has the capacity and  motivation to manage the MPA and to enact effective natural resource management measures.

2. Sustainable management of traditional fisheries Four traditional fisheries exist that are key to fisher livelihoods as well as attaining biodiversity conservation objectives: the pelagic fishery targeting species such as Spanish mackerel and karange; sea cucumber collection by free-diving; shark fishing and the traditional turtle fishery. Through a participatory appraisal the project will enable the local communities to define threats to these fisheries and to develop local solutions to overcoming these. The project will assist the communities in implementing identified strategies.

3. Implementation of biodiversity conservation actions to protect key habitats and species (turtle, cetacean and seabird populations). These measures will form part of the sustainable management of the fisheries so as to gain community buy-in, but will also achieve biodiversity  conservation objectives. Examples of such actions include: the establishment of NTZs on key reefs, the protection of turtle nesting beaches and fishing closures.

4. Strengthening of traditional governance and local institutional support to guarantee that the communities have the legal means to implement effective management. The fisheries management and biodiversity conservation measures will be enshrined in a local traditional law with the communities‘ consensus. Collaboration and engagement of local government authorities and the fisheries department will be undertaken to build institutional support for the MPA.

5. Community-based natural resource monitoring In the first instance this will establish the diversity and condition of the habitats and species present in the area. In the second it will monitor the evolution in the state of these, particularly those of key fisheries. This monitoring, done hand-in-hand with the fishers, will enable them to understand the state of their resources and the necessity of managing them. In the long term it will quantify the outputs of conservation actions and inform adaptive management.

6. Monitor and enforce a ban on industrial fishing within the MPA Intensive, near shore industrial trawling renders any local management efforts ineffective. In addition illegal, itinerant teams of sea cucumber divers equipped with scuba gear frequently pillage areas such as the Barren Isles. In socioeconomic surveying on the west coast, traditional fishers cited industrial trawling as the single biggest threat to their continued livelihoods. The MPA will have to work to overcome these problems by, for example: working with the industrial trawling sector and the Programme National de Recherche Crevettière (PNRC) to define boundaries for the MPA that accommodate all stakeholders; and develop a system of transparent reporting to facilitate the enforcement of the industrial fishing and illegal sea cucumber diving ban within the MPAs.

Long term vision of conservation

In addition to the above actions, in the long term the MPA will have to work with local people and private enterprise to create sustainable incomes for the MPA management and jobs for the local people. Most importantly this approach will have to ensure that conservation actions make business sense to local users, contribute to poverty alleviation and so guarantee that conservation is sustainable and broadly implemented. Potential projects that the feasibility study indentified include:

1. Sustainable traditional pelagic fishery: presently traditional fishers catch high-value pelagic fish but sell them as bulk, salt-dried fish on the local market. An opportunity exists to enhance the value of this fishery by enabling fishers to sell onto higher-value markets. This would require the development of a viable business plan so that a partnership with a private seafood export company could be developed.

2. Village-based sea cucumber and seaweed aquaculture: The variety of coastal habitats present in the protected area provide suitable conditions for these types of aquaculture project. The development of successful village-based aquaculture of sea cucumbers as well as seaweed within the Barren Isles could provide fishers with a valuable alternative income to fishing.

3. Mangrove REDD project: Significant mangrove forests exist within the Barren Isles ecosystem; the establishment of a carbon offsetting project that conserves these habitats could allow for the generation of carbon credits and consequently an income stream for the MPA. The project will have to examine the historical deforestation and degradation of the mangroves, carry out measurements to establish their potential carbon pool, as well as examine opportunities for restoration. These data will be included in a PIN with a view to obtaining carbon financing for mangrove conservation / restoration.

4. Ecotourism: with unspoilt natural beauty, pristine coral reefs, several charismatic marine mammals and game fishing, the Barren Islands has extraordinary eco-tourism potential. These natural assets will be leveraged to develop ecotourism in the Barren Isles as a means of providing sustainable income to the protected area. The inaccessibility of the Barren Isles poses a real barrier to the development of ecotourism and niche clients will have to be targeted.

In addition this project will be developed as a fully integrated Population, Health and Environment programme, to incorporate sexual and reproductive health services within conservation planning, in order to tackle a fundamental driver of poverty and threat to food security amongst fishing communities. This holistic and trans-disciplinary approach will ensure significant, immediate and long-lasting positive impacts for a range of stakeholders at local, national and global scales. Through working in close partnership with the local association MMTD and through local communities implementing the activities themselves, the project will build management capacity among local community groups and the next generation of Malagasy marine scientists and conservationists. The establishment of the Barren Isles Coastal and Marine Protected Area will help ensure the viability of one of Madagascar‘s most important marine and coastal ecosystems, thereby contributing to national and international biodiversity conservation goals.


The cornerstone of a regional network of MPAs

The Barren Isles MPA will complement several existing and proposed terrestrial conservation areas at an ecoregional and landscape level, including: the Bemamba Wetland Complex, the Wetland and Dense Dry Forest Complex of Tsimembo, the Manambolomaty Complex and the Menabe-Antimena Protected Area. Notably this would be Madagascar‘s first MPA to manage deep-water ocean habitats and populations of pelagic fish. SAPM – Madagascar‘s planning agency for protected areas - has long identified the Barren Isles as a ―future new protected area‖ - an area of very high conservation value, but for which there are currently no financial or material means to protect it.

On a regional level the MPA will form the cornerstone of a network of MPAs extending over the western coast of Madagascar that presently comprises the Velondriake MPA and Kirindy Mite MPA. Such a network will begin to contribute to the protection of an ecologically meaningful proportion of habitat, conserving threatened marine biodiversity as well as the fishing grounds of traditional migratory fishers. In doing so it will make a crucial contribution to the long-term economic viability of indigenous Vezo and Sara communities through forming a cornerstone of a regional marine protected area network that reflects their livelihood strategy of migration.

The number of migrant Vezo fishers from the South West of Madagascar frequenting the Barren Isles has increased since the early 2000s. In the last three years their number has increased dramatically, driven by the collapse of local fishing resources and population growth in the villages of origin. The implementation of the Kirindy-Mite marine extension has entailed Madagascar National Parks banning migrant fishers from certain

isles there. The ever increasing number of migrants constitutes a real threat to the Barren Isles if it continues unabated. Consequently, the formation of a Barren Isles MPA – with proper consultation of traditional Vezo fishers – will be an essential step towards addressing this problem and achieving a coherent regional management approach.

The network will help to reinforce a culture of responsible resource management on a regional scale and significantly increase the effectiveness of efforts to build capacity and tackle over-population. Through the repeated protection of a diversity of representative ecosystems the MPA network will build a mutually replenishing marine and coastal landscape. This will lend it some degree of adaptability and resilience to climate change on a landscape level. The positive synergies that such a network will provide, both at an ecological and a human level, will be invaluable in halting the decline of marine resources regionally and alleviating poverty in resource-dependent fishing communities.

Geographical area

Province: Mahajanga

Region: Melaky

Main town: Maintirano

The project area would include the fishing villages of Maintirano and would extend south to Soahany (approx. 65 km south) and the Barren Isles (Nosy Marify is 15 km directly west of Maintirano, Nosy Lava is 55 km south of Maintirano). The project will implicate approximately 3,000 persons comprising 480 families in 13 villages. The implicated villages are mainly isolated, small fishing villages located on the Barren Isles and the coast opposite the isles, but also include two fishing villages that are in the periphery of Maintirano town whose fishermen frequent the Barren Isles.