Filmmaker Jon Slayer has just returned from a trip to a remote corner of Madagascar. I caught up with him to find out what it was like diving on one of the healthiest hotspots of coral reef left in the country.
The Barren Isles are a remote cluster of nine islands in the Mozambique channel off the west coast of Madagascar. The nearest islands to shore are some 15 kilometers from the small coastal town of Maintirano which lies at the end of a tortuous 16 hour drive through the western hills from the capital, Antananarivo. These nearest islands are no more than sand dunes a few hundred meters long, protected from disappearing beneath the surface by beautiful shallow reefs that absorb the erosive power of the sea’s waves.
These reefs are the northenmost tip of the barrier reef that extends 400 km down from this point around the southwestern coast of the country. The barrier reef takes a turn toward the west here with the result that the last of the Barren Isles are over 30 km from shore. These islands may be more substantial than the close isles, the largest perhaps a mile long with trees, vegetation and appreciable elevation from the tides, but they all lack fresh water making them a very challenging destination for all but the most determined travellers.
JS: The key to that question is in the name. The Barren Isles are just that for people – harsh and difficult to live on. The result is that only a handful of very determined nomadic fisherman of the Vezo tribe venture there. Those that do make the journey are generally targeting pelagic fish and ignoring those on the reef. The result is prolific reefs that have escaped the destructive practices and heavy overexploitation that have degraded much of the rest of Madagascar’s barrier reef.
The contrast is marked. We frequently dropped onto extensive areas of 100% coral cover with profuse fish life, including large grouper and snapper, which tend to be the first species to disappear to overfishing. The team we had on board had dived extensively along the length and breadth of the barrier reef and hadn’t encountered anything as special as this. It really is an amazing place.
JS: The greatest threat is the poor state of the rest of the barrier reef that is already less productive. Historically the reefs have supported low level subsistence catches from a small tribal population. Now fishing pressure has increased due to high population growth and increasing commercial demand from international markets resulting in dwindling catches as the marine environment can’t keep up.
The tribes along this coast have nothing other than what they harvest from the sea and have always tended to be nomadic. Their migrations to follow resources have now reached their limit at the Barren Isles. As conditions become more desperate elsewhere more and more people could chance the harsh existence in the Barren Isles, responding to the promise of worthwhile catches out here thereby bringing similar degradation to this last outpost of healthy reef.
There are other threats to particular species – shark are a big target for their fins and sea cucumbers are heavily exploited by illegal ‘bottle’ divers, teams on scuba tanks that literally clear sea cucumbers from the sea floor. The lucrative sale of these items allows these fisherman the greater financial aid needed to survive in the outer islands although their livelihood, particularly of the bottle divers, is extremely dangerous. But in terms of threats to the reef, they don’t have too great an impact on the shallow coral areas as their targets are in much deeper water.
JS: There are! The Madagascan government has requested a baseline survey by Blue Ventures, a British based marine conservation NGO operating in Madagascar, of the marine environment around the Barren Isles. This is to guide a move to introduce conservation measures aimed at maintaining the health of the reefs around the islands.
Some community conservation efforts further south on the barrier reef have been very effective and the aim is to replicate this success for what seem to be the best of Madagascar’s reefs around the Barren Isles. This combination of improved management in the areas where the nomadic fishers originate and introduction of conservation measures in the islands themselves, give some hope that this area will still be this beautiful in the future.