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Blue Ventures is a marine conservation organisation working with communities to rebuild tropical small scale fisheries. Find out how an MSC Global Fisheries Sustainability Fund grant is supporting their work with semi-nomadic seafaring communities in a southwest Madagascar octopus fishery.

Fishing plays a crucial role in the cultures, livelihoods and food security of many developing countries.  And with declining fish stocks and soaring demand worldwide, the need for sustainable fisheries in these areas − which include some of the world’s poorest fishing communities − is more pressing than ever.

More than half of global fish exports originate in developing countries, with fisheries being a hugely important source of income for many coastal states. As consumer awareness has risen in recent years, fish destined for Western countries have become subject to market pressure for sustainability. This pressure drives the use of eco-certification schemes, like the Marine Stewardship Council’s ecolabel. 

Yet despite significant traction in global seafood markets, few fisheries in developing countries have achieved MSC certification, due to an array of challenges. Consequently, many environmental organisations are working with fisheries to improve their management in a process known as a Fishery Improvement Project, or FIP.

In rural southwest Madagascar, Blue Ventures is currently supporting a FIP in the octopus fishery with the ultimate objective of achieving MSC certification. We are collaborating with government agencies, the national marine institute and other environmental organisations, as well as commercial seafood exporters and community partners.

Southwest Madagascar’s octopus fishery

The octopus fishery spans almost 500 kilometres of Madagascar’s southwest coast, from the town of Morombe in the north to the village of Androka in the south. Coastal communities are extremely isolated and lack basic infrastructure, rendering the transport and distribution of octopus extremely challenging.

The marine environment here is characterised by one of Africa’s largest coral reef ecosystems, which provides habitat for the target species, Octopus cyanea. The arid land prevents agriculture in most of the region, leading to a very high reliance on fishing for subsistence and income.

This region is home to the semi-nomadic seafaring Vezo people. Vezo means ‘to paddle, which speaks to the people’s way of life and close connection to the sea and Vezo culture is deeply entwined with fishing. Traditional fishers use wooden fishing spears (known as a voloso in the local dialect) to capture the octopus using two different fishing techniques: gleaning and free diving. Gleaners are predominantly women, who fish by walking on the reef flats at low tide and use their voloso to coerce octopus from small crevices in the reef flat. Free diving is practiced by men, using the voloso and a facemask to dive and access deeper habitats, up to 5m.

Catches are sold to local collectors stationed on beaches who are then responsible for transporting catches to Toliara, the regional capital and export processing hub. Transfer of octopus from landing stations to Toliara entails long, arduous truck journeys along the unpaved tracks that wind along the coast.


Two Toliara-based seafood companies aggregate, process and export around 80% of the total catch in southwest Madagascar, which in 2014 was around 600 tonnes. Much of the product is destined for wholesalers and retailers in France, Italy, Spain and Mauritius. The relatively large market means the fishery is an excellent candidate for efforts to encourage, incentivise and reward sustainability through the seafood supply chain.

Developing the FIP

As a first step towards MSC certification, the fishery underwent a pre-assessment in 2010. The list of recommendations that resulted highlighted some of the major fisheries management challenges common to developing countries. The regional fisheries department in southwest Madagascar grapples with data deficiency and lack of funding. Under-staffing and the absence of a clear legal framework to support effective fisheries co-management can also hinder progress. Ongoing challenges include conducting robust stock assessments and understanding the impact of the fishery on the wider ecosystem.

Environmental organisations working to support community-based marine resource management in the region have taken steps to address some of these challenges. Blue Ventures worked with fishing communities to facilitate Madagascar’s first temporary octopus fishery closure. This model that has since been replicated across much of the fishery, and has been shown to boost catch productivity and local incomes.

The community-led approach to fisheries management has in turn catalyzed the development of a regional network of conservation areas known as locally managed marine areas (LMMAs). These help address broader conservation objectives beyond the octopus fishery.

Next steps

Blue Ventures is now helping local fishers to develop innovative methods of data collection, including the use of tablets and smartphones to assess octopus stocks.

Initial mobile monitoring trials took place over an 18-month period and data are currently being reviewed to decide what the next steps for this method should be. A separate bespoke smartphone app for octopus data collection is also being developed. This will speed up data and automate feedback to the community data collectors’ phones, allowing them to view data summaries more quickly. Once development of the app is complete we plan to trial it and make it available free of charge to partner organisations.

FIPs can be a lengthy process, particularly in fisheries with limited data and a lack of management capacity.  As Madagascar’s octopus fishery advances through its FIP, the broader benefits of the process are becoming clear: expanded knowledge of the octopus fishery; strengthened relationships between stakeholders; and enhanced outreach that is increasing support from communities to stop the use of destructive fishing practices. Although challenging, the FIP process is proving to be essential towards driving sustainability in a fishery that underpins the livelihoods of this region’s coastal communities.

The MSC Global Fisheries Sustainability Fund supports innovative fishery science research and projects that help small scale and developing world fisheries to achieve sustainability and certification.