The Impact of COVID-19 on Small-scale Lobster Fisheries in southeast Madagascar
Despite what the name suggests, small-scale fisheries play a critical role in food security, income provision and poverty alleviation for millions of people around the world1. With the vast majority of small-scale fishers living in developing countries2 with poor healthcare infrastructure, poverty and food insecurity, these millions are now disproportionately at risk from the COVID-19 pandemic.
For coastal communities in southeast Madagascar, where SEED Madagascar works, small-scale lobster fishing is a vitally important livelihood. In the communities of Elodrato, Itapera and Sainte Luce, between 50-80% of households are involved in lobster fishing and poverty is widespread. In a recent survey for our work with the Darwin Initiative, we found that 100% of households were living below the locally defined poverty level, although the income gained from lobster fishing makes these households significantly wealthier than non-fishing households.
Lobster fishing is labour intensive and lobsters are caught using traditional methods. At the crack of dawn, fishers paddle their wooden pirogues (canoes) out to sea hoping that the hand-woven pots they set the day before have trapped lobsters and haven’t broken or washed away. If the sea is too rough, fishers must sacrifice their daily income and are unable to provide food for their family, or risk their lives fishing. The COVID-19 pandemic is increasing the risks fishers face daily. Fishers are unable to socially distance, with up to six fishers packed into a single pirogue. This, combined with densely packed households, limited access to handwashing and healthcare facilities puts fishing communities at severe risk of widespread Coronavirus infection.
With low economic resilience in these fishing communities, due to fluctuating daily income, fishers are unable to put away savings or have a food reserve. A lack of alternative livelihoods, coupled with poverty, compels fishers to continue fishing for lobsters even during the COVID-19 pandemic. So, despite putting more and more effort into fishing over time, fishers are catching fewer lobsters than in the past. Due to this, there are ongoing concerns that the local lobster stock could collapse which would have devastating impacts on the fishers and communities who rely on this valuable resource.
In the eighties, we would put four pots in the sea and get lots of lobster. Now we put 25 pots in the sea and we just get half a kiloCommunity Leader, Elodrato
Lobsters are a high value commodity and are sold to national and international markets via one or more collectors. Fishers receive approximately 25,000Ar/kg ($6.50) in communities where the population lives on less than $1.90 a day3. Very small lobsters, far below the poorly enforced legal minimum landing size of 20 cm, feed the families of fishers. Already vulnerable, these communities are now becoming increasingly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, not just from the public health emergency but also the cascading economic impacts.
Each year from January 1st to March 31st, the National Closed Season for Lobster Fishing occurs across Madagascar in an attempt to reverse declining lobster stocks. During this time, it is illegal to fish for lobsters and many households forgo their primary livelihood, relying on alternatives such as farming rice and cassava and, mahampy (reed) weaving. When households are desperate, mats which take up to two days to weave, are sold in the local market for as little as 2,000Ar ($0.52). The official opening of the National Closed Season, April 1st, is eagerly awaited by lobster fishers across the southeast, ready to resume fishing and provide for their families once more. However, despite only reaching the shores of the Red Island in March, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the opening.
This year, communities were in a state of turmoil as the collectors did not return to purchase lobsters following the closed season and fishing activities did not resume as planned in Elodrato, Itapera or Sainte Luce. Only 30-60% of households reported sufficient income during previous National Closed Seasons, and this year, following months with reduced income, communities struggled, and fishers were forced to make difficult decisions. Should they go fishing and hope that collectors would return soon? Should they wait to fish until the collectors return? Or should they rely on other livelihood activities, such as mahampy weaving, despite these also having been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?
People here are hopeless. The fishers complain about selling lobsters and the weavers say there are no clientsFisher’s wife, Elodrato
In Sainte Luce, April is an even more important month for lobster fishing households as their periodic No Take Zone (NTZ), an area of the fishing ground temporarily closed to lobster fishing, closes in May. SEED has supported Sainte Luce to establish and manage a Locally Managed Marine Area, an area of inshore waters managed by the local community, with an NTZ as the main local management measure. Fishers are fuelled by the hopes of bigger catches and increased household income following NTZ openings to comply with closures and temporarily reduce the area of fishing ground they are able to fish in. However, with the late return of collectors and plummeting lobster prices, fishers in Sainte Luce reported having no other choice than to fish for the normally lower value tuna or shark for local consumption at a time when they would prefer to fish for lobsters. Lobster fishing became less profitable with the money earnt from lobster fishing almost equal to the money invested in lobster fishing materials such as pots. This also had a knock-on effect delaying the May NTZ closure.
Since 2013 Project Oratsimba, SEED’s community-based fisheries management project, has supported the communities of Elodrato, Itapera and Sainte Luce, to sustainably manage their fisheries and safeguard lobster fishing as a livelihood. In Sainte Luce, fishers are moving towards adopting more sustainable fishing practices through the benefits they see in increased lobster catches and household incomes following NTZ openings. These increases have acted as a catalyst for Elodrato who are currently in the process of designing their own local law and demarcating an NTZ. The economic impacts and disruption the COVID-19 pandemic is already bringing have the potential to halt or even regress progress that communities have made towards safeguarding their fishery. Economic necessity, to provide for families in the short term, may prevent fishers from continuing to adopt more sustainable fishing practices.
SEED are continuing to provide support to communities to manage their fisheries, where possible, thanks to funding by the Darwin Initiative. The Elodrato Fisheries Management Committee are receiving training on local regulation design, the Sainte Luce Fisheries Management Committee are receiving training on the importance of enforcement and in all three communities the data collectors are continuing to collect lobster and shark catch data.
SEED is also supporting fishing communities as part of their wider community preparation work in the fight against COVID-19. Local radio is an important tool in communicating messages in rural communities who have no access to TV, internet or newspapers. Fishers in Elodrato, Itapera and Sainte Luce told Project Oratsimba staff just how important these messages on local radio are to help them keep their families safe.
1. Béné C, Macfadyen G and Allison EH, 2007. Increasing the contribution of small-scale fisheries to poverty alleviation and food security. Food and Agriculture Organisation, Rome.
2. World Bank, FAO and WorldFish, 2012. Hidden Harvest: The Global Contribution of Capture Fisheries. World Bank, New York.
3. Healy T, 2018. The Deep South: Socio-economic, historic, cultural, political, anthropological and environmental analysis of Madagascar’s southern Region. World Bank, Antananarivo.