‘Octopuses tell people good conservation stories’

Tom Bawden, a journalist for the i newspaper, meets the team using octopuses to win over communities in Madagascar by demonstrating cheaply and quickly the power of conservation

The waters off the Madagascan coast 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 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 who rely on fishing for their food and income.


“The decline of fish stocks worldwide is a critical problem for livelihoods and food security,” says Dr Alasdair Harris, chief executive of the London-based conservation group Blue Ventures. “About 97 per cent of the world’s fish 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.”

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 are imposed upon fishing communities without explaining the rationale or offering any form of compensation for a measure that leaves villagers cash-strapped in the short term. All too often, this results in standoffs between well-meaning conservationists and the communities they are trying to help.

We use the octopus as the catalyst to protect the broader ecosystem. Seeing their rapid recovery allows us to start a conversation with locals

By contrast, Dr Harris and his team work closely with often-suspicious local communities, typically using octopuses to demonstrate cheaply and quickly the power of conservation. The tentacled creatures are ideal because they grow so rapidly. Communities can quickly see the benefits of, and profit from, closing off an area to octopus-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 ecosystem. Seeing their rapid recovery allows us to start a conversation with locals who were previously totally opposed to, for instance, setting up a permanent marine reserve.”

Velvetine says that octopus gleaning is the only source of income available to her

Closing off a quarter of an octopus fishing area 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 returning to the previous level.

The real beauty of the scheme is that the total number of octopuses caught remains stable, as fishermen are able to step up their catch in the other three quarters of the area,” Harris says. The villagers can cordon off each area twice a year, ensuring that their fish stocks are continually being rejuvenated.

“Everybody knows how big the average octopus is and remembers the biggest octopus they ever saw. And if they start seeing an octopus that’s 10 times bigger than anything they’ve seen, just by closing part of the fishery for three months, that’s quite seismic,” says Harris.

The catch is good in the days after openings. I have more money for food and for my family

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. The country had no marine protected areas 10 years ago, despite having a huge dependence on the ocean, says Harris.

“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 explains.

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Velvetine, a member of the Vezo ethnic community living on the south Madagascan coast, says: “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 octopuses 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.”

A Vezo mother with her child

The model has now been replicated hundreds of times on the Madagascan coast. As a result, more than 100 locally managed marine protected areas have been established that are much more ambitious than protecting octopus.

They include permanent marine reserves around really important areas of coral reefs, mangrove and seagrass, covering 14.5 per cent of one of Africa’s largest sea beds.

“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,” Harris says.
Last year, Blue Ventures organised an exchange scheme that saw a group of Mexicans travel to Madagascar. “They had nothing in common, no language, no culture, no reference points except they both target octopuses. The guys from Mexico saw what these people in Madagascar had achieved, it’s quite powerful stuff,” Harris says.

Images: Garth Cripps and Blue Ventures


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