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Echinoderms to the Rescue

In the middle of the night, villagers wade through shallow enclosures 100 metres offshore, looking for small, sausage-like creatures in the dark waters. Prized as a delicacy in the Far East, sea cucumbers are a godsend for this small village in one of Madagascar's ungoverned corners. Tampolove is home to the country's first locally owned sea cucumber farm which has been transforming the lives of local villagers.

One of the waders is 27 year old Vinike. 'The work is much easier than fishing and catching octopus' says Odette, 'and I'm very happy with the price. We can all afford to buy more things.' When she has filled her bucket with sea cucumbers, she takes it to the weighing. She can only sell any specimen over 400 grams. The rest must be returned to the sea. Each of the mature cucumbers will be sold for 4000 Ariary ($1.11) to a local exporter, giving Odette a decent wage. 'The sea-cucumber is a very different animal. It has no eyes, no heart, no limbs ... but it is magnificent!'

Sea cucumbers belong to the echinoderm family, along with starfish and urchins, and come in all shapes and sizes. They spend their days buried in silt, emerging at night to feed by sifting through sediment. In recent decades overfishing has left wild sea-cucumber stocks decimated with some 23 species now considered endangered or threatened. These sea cucumber farms are part of an innovative scheme to protect the environment and improve people's lives.

In 2004 the community teamed up with British NGO Blue Ventures to decide what to do about the rapid decline in stocks. They set up an association comprising representatives from several local villages to manage fishing and the environment. They called the protected area Velondriake, which translates as 'to live with the sea'.

The villagers quickly set up zones which are off limits to all fishing, and several temporary closures of octopus fishing grounds. They banned fine-meshed nets, fishing with dynamite and cyanide, and the cutting down of mangroves in protected areas. They declared a ban on catching certain species like turtles and dolphins, and established seasonal restrictions on other species. These rules were made official and infractions became punishable. Remarkably, the rules were largely kept, most likely because they were locally agreed upon rather than imposed from above.

Alongside sea cucumber farming the villages offer tourist 'homestays' and there are plans to start a silkworm farm in mangrove forests. According to Richard Badouraly, the president of the Velondriake Association, local seaweed farming brings in over 20 million arirary (USD 5,540) per month and the potential profits from sea cucumbers could be much higher.

Despite early problems, including theft and dying out of stocks due to overpopulation, the farms are now thriving. Farmers lease their plots from the community and the association sells the sea cucumbers to local exporters, reinvesting part of the proceeds before paying out dividends to the farmers. The pens are now guarded around the clock to stop poachers and a locally elected committee oversees the whole process.

Tim Klucknow, a Zimbabwean aquaculture specialist who works with Blue Ventures, is upbeat. 'The market is absolutely insatiable' he says. Prices have been rising steadily, promising a bright future for the farmers. He puts his faith in the potential of sustainable aquaculture, pointing out that 'We live on a planet that's 70% covered in ocean and it's taken us far too long to realise we need to stop hunting in it and start farming it.'

Back in Tampolove, solar lights are appearing outside many homes, and tin roofs are beginning to replace thatch ones. 'The zangas (sea cucumbers) have brought us more money than we used to have' says Narinja Marchelin, a 37-year-old mother of two boys. "I spend less time catching octopus. Life is good now.' Full text on request.
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