Telling tales from an octopus' garden

BRITAIN • 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 build-up of soil released by nearby deforestation have severely degraded this coastal bounty.

A cheap, simple and effective solution has been offered by London-based conservation group Blue Ventures - a "softly, softly" approach that involves large doses of octopuses and good storytelling.

Typically, marine protected areas are imposed upon fishing communities without any explanation for the rationale or offers of any form of compensation. This often results in a stand-off between conservationists and the local communities they are trying to help.

Blue Ventures' founder Alasdair Harris and his team work closely with local communities, typically using octopuses to demonstrate cheaply and quickly the power of conservation.

"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 the locals," said Dr Harris.

Closing off a quarter of an octopus fishing area for just three months has been found to double their catch in that area after it reopens.

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. With the reserves we make a small sacrifice, but the catch is good in the days after openings."

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 sceptical communities. The group also works in Timor Leste, Mozambique and Indonesia on a broad range of conservation projects using the "catalyst" model.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 24, 2017, with the headline 'Telling tales from an octopus' garden'. Print Edition | Subscribe