One of the biggest reef complexes in the world extends over 450 kilometers between Androaka and Morombe in the southwest of Madagascar. The Toliara reef system is made up of barrier and fringing reefs, shallow lagoons, and abyssal slopes. It is one of very few places in the world inhabited by the coelacanth, a 400-million-year-old species of fish. Over 6,000 different species have been identified, including at least thirteen species of sharks, four species of marine turtles, and eleven species of cetaceans.
WCS research on cetaceans has indicated that this region is active breeding habitat for humpback whales (equivalent in importance to the Antongil Bay region), hosts the highest diversity of cetacean species documented anywhere in Madagascar, and there are rare reports of critically endangered blue whales in near-shore waters. The Vezo people who live in this coastal region practice a traditional lifestyle that is almost entirely dependent on the coral reefs and relied on fishing on near-shore coral reefs as their sole source of income.
With 400,000 inhabitants and almost half of Madagascar’s traditional fishers living along the coastline, human pressure on this seascape has increased dramatically in recent years through population growth, growing market demand for marine products (octopus, sea cucumbers, shark fins etc.), and long-term deficiencies in governance, law enforcement, and resource management.
The combination of these factors has contributed to overexploitation across the seascape of Toliara, deteriorating the living standards of fishing communities. Compounding these challenges, the reefs of southwest Madagascar are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change; hence improvements in fisheries management are critical to boost both social and ecological resilience. Also, in the southwest of Madagascar, traditional Vezo fishermen opportunistically hunt protected species such as marine turtles and coastal dolphins for local consumption and sale of meat or turtle shell.
WCS’s objective in the Toliara Seascape is to improve small-scale fisheries management, promote conservation measures that are essential for the survival of the reef complex, and ensure sustainable livelihoods for the village communities that live in the zone. From 2003 to 2008, WCS has been supporting, with other partners such as Blue Ventures and Madagascar’s Institute of Marine Sciences (IHSM), the implementation of the first community-based marine protected area of Madagascar around Andavadoaka (Velondriake MPA).
As a direct response to the treat on coastal dolphins, since 2007 WCS has been working with local partners to establish the community-based Anakao Association for the Protection of Whales and Dolphins (known locally as the FMTF), and has supported this association in the development of local traditional laws related to cetacean conservation, and the creation of an education and awareness raising program in the local villages.
Since 2008 WCS has been working with local partners to create a new community-managed marine protected area (MPA) called Soariake (meaning “Beautiful Sea”), which is located 85 km to the north of Toliara and spans a total area of 38,293 hectares – that includes 12 short-term octopus marine reserves that are formalized through local traditional law (Dina), and managed by local communities. Community partners are supported to manage and protect the MPA, participate in community control and surveillance committees, and are engaged in monitoring of fish catch trends in the MPA. WCS also works with communities and private sector partners to develop sustainable value chains based around sea cucumber and seaweed farming that increase household incomes and reduce pressure on fish stocks.