Impact Journalism Day - Solutions to global issues - 2017
The art of good octopus storytelling
The waters off the coast of Madagascar used to teem with life.
But overfishing by foreign fleets, increasingly extreme weather brought about by climate change and a buildup of soil released by nearby deforestation have severely degraded this coastal bounty - along with much of the population's livelihood.
And without drastic action - around Madagascar and far beyond - these vastly depleted reserves will continue to diminish, with potentially catastrophic results for hundreds of millions of families around the world that rely on fishing for their food and income.
"The decline of fish stocks worldwide is a critical problem for livelihoods and food security," says Alasdair Harris, chief executive of the London-based conservation group Blue Ventures. "About 97 per cent of the world's fishes live in the developing world. These fish stocks are collapsing because of over-exploitation and with climate change these problems are only becoming much more severe," he added.
A softly, softly approach
Fortunately, Dr Harris has a cheap, simple and effective solution - a softly, softly approach that involves large doses of octopuses and good storytelling.
Typically, marine protected areas (MPAs) are imposed upon fishing communities without explaining the rationale behind the move or offering any form of compensation for a measure that often carries a short-term cost that cash-strapped villagers simply cannot afford.
All too often this results in a standoff between well-meaning conservationists and the local communities they are trying to help.
By contrast, Dr Harris and his team work closely with often-suspicious local communities, typically using octopuses to win them over by demonstrating cheaply and quickly the power of conservation.
These tentacled creatures are ideal because they grow so rapidly. This means communities can quickly see - and profit - from closing off an area to fishing for a short while to allow them to breed uninterrupted.
"We're not primarily interested in conserving octopuses. We use the octopus as the catalyst to protect the broader eco-system. Seeing their rapid recovery allows us to start a conversation with locals that were previously totally opposed to, for instance, setting up a permanent marine reserve and that results in them setting up that permanent marine reserve," Dr Harris says.
Closing off a quarter of an octopus fishing waters for just three months has been found to double their catch in that area by villages after it reopens. The elevated catch will last for around two months before going back to the level before the project started.
Meanwhile, the real beauty of the scheme is that the total amount of octopus caught remains stable as fishermen are able to step up their catch in the other three quarters of the area, Dr Harris said. The villagers can cordon off each area twice a year, ensuring that their fish stocks are continually being rejuvenated.
The biggest mark in Madagascar
"Everybody knows how big the average octopus is and everybody remembers the biggest octopus they ever saw. And if they start seeing an octopus that's ten times bigger than anything they've ever seen before just because they saw just by closing part of the fishery for three months that's quite seismic," said Dr Harris.
Blue Ventures, which gets 70 per cent of its funding from donors such as the government and the rest from diving holidays, has also used giant clams and blue swimmer crabs as 'gateway species' to sell conservation to suspicious communities. The group also works in East Timor, Mozambique and Indonesia on a broad range of conservation projects using the 'catalyst' model.
But it is in Madagascar that it has made its biggest mark. Ten years ago, Madagascar had no marine protected areas, despite having a huge dependence on the ocean, Dr Harris said.
"We used the octopus catalyst model to demonstrate to one community what could happen. It worked and they talked to their neighbours, who also tried it and so it spread virally around the coast," he said.
Velvetine, a member of the Vezo ethnic community living on the south Madagascan coast and beneficiary of the programme, said, "Octopus gleaning is the only way that I can earn money. A long time ago we could also glean for sea cucumbers, but there are no more left. Before we started doing octopus reserves, we were only catching two or three octopus in a day, and some days we wouldn't catch any at all. With the reserves we make a small sacrifice, but the catch is good in the days after openings. I have more money for food and for my family."
There have been hundreds of replications of that model now around the coast of Madagascar. As a result of that there are now over 100 locally managed marine protected areas that have been established that are much more ambitious than protected octopus, he says.
They include permanent marine reserves around really important areas of coral reefs and mangrove and seagrass, covering 14.5 per cent of one of the biggest seabeds in Africa.
"This has happened on a budget that has been negligible at a time of government shut down most of the time and most of that period there's been a military coup," he said.
Last year, Blue Ventures organised an exchange scheme which saw a group of Mexicans travel to Madagascar. "They had nothing in common, no language, no culture, no reference points except they both target octopus. The guys from Mexico saw what these people in Madagascar had achieved, it's quite powerful stuff," Dr Harris said.