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Farming Sea Cucumbers in Madagascar…for Economic Hope and Conservation

By  Taylor Mayol, Blue Ventures Look at a map and find Madagascar, the fourth biggest island on Earth, just off the coast of east Africa. Focus on the dry southwest and find the town of Toliara, capital of this impoverished region. Now imagine a drive northwards through the searing heat along a bumpy, sandy trail. You’re...

A sea cucumber in Madagascar
A sea cucumber, an increasingly popular delicacy in China. Photograph by Brian Jones, courtesy Blue Ventures

By  Taylor Mayol, Blue Ventures

Look at a map and find Madagascar, the fourth biggest island on Earth, just off the coast of east Africa. Focus on the dry southwest and find the town of Toliara, capital of this impoverished region.

Now imagine a drive northwards through the searing heat along a bumpy, sandy trail. You’re hugging the coast, flanking the peculiar yet alluring Spiny Forest, one of the planet’s most threatened forest ecosystems. You hold on tight as your 4×4 surges forward over rocks and nearly becomes planted in the deep, fine sand.

To the west lie crystal clear emerald waters and vast lagoons fringed by one of the Indian Ocean’s largest yet least known coral reefs. You continue like this for eight hours, jaw gaping at the exaggerated color and beauty of untouched beaches around you.

Finally, you arrive in the village of Andavadoaka, the heart of Velondriake, one of the Indian Ocean’s largest community managed marine conservation areas. The people here, the Vezo, are true experts in conservation. In fact, they have been taking care of their marine environment since 2006, a remarkable feat given how heavily they depend on the ocean – for cultural identity, income, and basic survival. And the Vezo are amongst Madagascar’s poorest, a stark statistic in a country that has the highest prevalence of household poverty in Africa.

Velondriake’s Vezo have created permanent and temporary marine reserves, and even have an official governing body with elected representatives from 25 villages, responsible for making decisions and passing local laws that forbid destructive fishing practices like poison fishing. Although these laws are imperative for marine health, they are not enough to combat future environmental degradation given high population growth in the region. The creation of new, inventive sources of income that don’t depend on fishing are crucial.

That’s easier said than done in such an environmentally inhospitable and underdeveloped region. So what do these people do if they want to scale back fishing? How can they feed their families and make a living without overexploiting the sea? The answer is found in a curious marine invertebrate. Enter the remarkable –  yet distinctly uncharismatic –  sea cucumber.

Farming sea cucumbers.
Farming sea cucumbers. Photograph by Antoine Rougier, courtesy Blue Ventures
Locals are learning to farm the sea
Locals are learning to farm the sea. Photograph by Antoine Rougier, courtesy Blue Ventures

Sea cucumbers are bottom-dwelling echinoderms – close relatives of starfish – that once littered ocean floors throughout the tropics. Much like a garden earthworm, they play a crucial role in recycling nutrients in sediments, forming the bedrock of complex marine food chains. These bizarre creatures have been consumed in Asia for centuries, prized for their purported medicinal properties and touted as edible aphrodisiacs once reserved for the wealthy. Yet China’s economic boom has meant more people can afford this delicacy, fueling skyrocketing international demand.

Predictably, wild sea cucumber populations have plummeted, pushing fishers to adopt ever more aggressive methods of harvesting these docile animals. In recent years, fishers have embraced the use of SCUBA gear to target even those sea cucumbers living in deeper water –  a practice banned in Madagascar but poorly enforced. Now, sea cucumber stocks have crashed in nearly all of the world’s accessible tropical seas.

A 2012 EU commissioned study of Madagascar’s sea cucumber trade showed exactly this, with an 85% drop in yield since the fishery’s historical peak. The near loss of an entire species, and the cash that goes with it, has enormous implications for Andavadoaka’s Vezo and delicate ecosystem equilibrium.

Fresh Hope

But don’t fear. This isn’t just another doom-and-gloom story about how the oceans are being stripped to satisfy human appetite. There is a new glimmer of hope for both sea cucumbers and Vezo communities. Locally managed aquaculture farms have begun sprouting up in shallow bays around Velondriake, introducing environmentally sustainable sea cucumber ranching as a simple source of cash for the Vezo.

A partnership between a commercial seafood exporter and Toliara’s marine institute uses patented technology to produce juvenile sea cucumbers for sale to fishers. Community farming groups then grow these thimble-size animals in basic mesh farming pens, adjacent to each village. Since sea cucumbers feed off the ocean floor, the process requires no feed, just pen maintenance and a vigilant eye to ward off poachers.

A woman in Madagascar who works in sea cucumber aquaculture
New economic opportunity. Photograph by Antoine Rougier, Blue Ventures

After about nine months, these tiny creatures reach adult size – the bulk of a large sub sandwich – and are sold on to exporters for around US $2.50 per sea cucumber. This smooth system links these isolated communities to otherwise hard to reach global markets.

Sea cucumbers are expensive, selling for hundreds, even thousands, of dollars per kilogram at their final point of sale. This means farmers in Velondriake, who previously lived on less than a dollar fifty a day, are now increasing their incomes. Currently, each farmer group makes an additional US $30 per month, with a growth forecast that will double this profit in the coming months and continue to increase in coming years. There are now three sea cucumber farms in Velondriake, operated by almost 200 farmers.

Perhaps most importantly, 48% of these farmers are women, an unexpected achievement in a heavily patriarchal society.

Independent Business

Our team of aquaculture technicians trains farmers and assists families with running their farms as independent businesses. We also facilitate small business trainings, and now fishers are reinvesting money earned in education, bulk purchases of rice and expanding their farms. We have worked in the region since 2003, and realize that community conservation must be anchored in social business approaches in order to incentivize sustainable local conservation action.

Now, if you visit one of these sea cucumber farming communities, you can look around at the breathtaking bay with pure white sandbars breaking the surface and the brightly painted sailing dug-out canoes, and know that the poverty in the backdrop is not infinite.

Baby sea cucumbers.
Baby sea cucumbers. Photograph by Antoine Rougier, courtesy Blue Ventures

Perhaps best of all, you can look out to sea, and see a community-built guard tower, occupied by a farmer charged with watching over the precious and lucrative sea cucumbers, and know that the community is in this business together, for themselves and their marine environment.

Intertwining small business development, the sea, and local leadership in conservation can boost biodiversity and inject cash into some of the most remote places on Earth. Let’s embrace this approach and get more fishers farming sustainably in the sea.

Blue Ventures is a British marine conservation NGO that has been working on community conservation in Madagascar for the last decade.

The aquaculture project is generously supported by NorgesVel.

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