Before Noavy started monitoring shark catches, she would only get up before dawn to harvest the seaweed that lies drying in various stages of rubbery or crispy tangles outside her home.
Nowadays, her data-collection on sharks being brought into her village means she’s up and on call at all hours, despite the fact that the animals have been rapidly disappearing from Madagascar’s shoreline for the past 30 years.
“Before, there were big things in the sea. But now, it’s only sometimes,” she said from her hut in the village of Lamboara, home to a few hundred people on Madagascar’s south-west coast and marooned by afternoon lagoon tides.
Noavy is 46, but like many people in rural Madagascar, she doesn’t have a surname. She remembers being told not to go in the water as a teenager as the shallows were brimming with sharks.
“We didn’t go to wash ourselves because we were scared of them,” she recalls.
“You could see them from the beach,” and hear the stories of fishermen in pirogues – dug out canoes – mauled by sharks as they tried to reel in their catch, she adds.
But the fishermen up and down this overfished coast now have to paddle and sail for hours to find smaller sharks in the deeper waters, as the shores have been emptied.
It takes two hours of bumping down rocky tracks in a trolley-sized cart drawn by zebu – Madagascar’s beloved bulls – to reach Lamboara, and a few hours to sail the 15 kilometers back to reach a bigger village called Andavadoaka.
It’s there that British charity Blue Ventures has been working with local communities for a decade to set up Locally Managed Marine Areas (LMMAs) with around 25 villages that have seen great success with octopus reserves that boost their numbers, and therefore people’s profits.
Now, the marine conservation organization is working with community members trained on how to record octopus and shark catches using mobile phones and tablets to better understand how local ecosystems work, and can be fished sustainably.
“People who live by the sea just think that the fish that have been there for centuries will just always be there, even though they’re decreasing”, says Roger Samba, president of the LMMA.
But it’s vital that they have the tools to understand why fish stocks are falling, and how to control them.
“It’s quite invasive for a whole load of scientists to go into a village, and it’s a bit meaningless, whereas if you get a community to monitor resources and habit they’re fishing on it’s more meaningful for Blue Ventures but ultimately them”, says Tori Jeffers, who manages Blue Ventures’ smartphone project. On a more local and immediate level, she hopes that data “fed back to community in an understandable manner” will help fuel decisions on shark fishing closures during pupping seasons or around breeding areas. The aim is not only to find out what and how much is being caught, by who and where, but to get faster, more accurate data that can be shared and analyzed on open data platforms.
An estimated 100 million sharks are caught globally per year and a quarter of shark and ray species are threatened with extinction.
But conservationists think that up to 40 percent might be endangered as so little is known about the sea’s vital predators that police the oceans’ reefs.
Shark export records in Madagascar date back to the 1920s, but nowadays, despite agreements with foreign fleets allowed to fish for shark or have them in bycatch, there is very little monitoring along the 6,500 kilometer-long coastline.
And with severely-underfunded government patrols unable to purchase even the petrol for their boats, conservation has to start in the communities whose livelihoods depend on the oceans and see the future value of recording data.
“I like the phone as I can save everything; nothing gets lost,” says Noavy, who before might lose the data on a pen and pad or forget which fisherman had caught what.
It took a while for anyone to call Noavy to tell her that they’d caught a shark, as they were suspicious about their details being noted down or put into a smartphone.
Through Blue Ventures, she is able to pay them 300 ariary ($0.10) per shark as compensation for waiting while she does her work, “so now they see the benefit,” she says.
She starts by measuring the length of the shark, photographing its body, head and mouth to make sure that fishermen don’t try to claim the same shark twice. She then determines and records its sex and entering the details of where and when it was caught.
In the three years she’s been recording details – first on paper, now a smartphone that she charges using a solar panel on her thatched roof – she’s noticed the general trend of sharks getting smaller and fewer.
“I used to find so many types of sharks, and now not many,” she says. Some species like the white shark, tiger shark and fresh water sharks have completely vanished from Lamboara’s nets.
In addition to the monitoring of sharks, fishermen have also started seeing the benefit of having information on what they catch for octopus, which have a short life and breeding span.
At the start, there was strong opposition to the idea of octopus closures. Many people with little faith in politicians and foreigners thought it was a trick to plunder their catch, rather than an effort to allow octopus stocks to rise. It was only later when the catches were shown to have improved that people embraced the idea and expanded it to over 20 neighboring villages.
“This kind of model that you apply and then have the opinion of the community is very important,” says Tinah Voahangy Martin, Blue Ventures’ Fisheries Programme Assistant. “Conservation alone won’t change anything, because if people are told just to protect these resources, what are they going to do for their own living?”
60-year-old shark hunter Jean-Francois says that sharks were so big in the 1980s that fishermen would sometimes have to fill their pirogues with water – almost sinking them – so that they could get them on board to bring home.
“I used to catch so many sharks, but now it’s so difficult,” he says, before showing the jawbone of a shark that he proudly caught last month that produced 80 kilos of meat.
Just twenty or thirty years ago, the whole village would celebrate when a shark was brought in.
“Everyone who wanted to eat would come and take some. But now, no one shares their sharks, as before life was much easier and slower and no one was here to buy this cheap meat. Now everyone wants it,” he says.
Asia’s 1980s economic boom sparked a global shark market that peaked in the mid-1990s, with shark fin soup seen as a luxury item.
The fin market is now worth up to $500 million per year, and while increasing awareness of the shark-finning process is turning many people off, the taste for shark meat is increasing, as is the use of shark liver oil for biomedical purposes.
Industrial shark fishing in Madagascar’s Economic Export Zone (EEZ) really took off in the 1990s. Some European and Asian boats have public agreements with the Malagasy government and some have private agreements. It’s hard to tell which boats are above board, and whether or not they’re sticking to their quotas.
“There are many boats that come at night and by morning they’re gone. We just see the lights. There’s a lot of illegal fishing,” says Samba.
Local fishers complain about industrial fishing boats encroaching on their business with bigger and better equipment that allows them to sweep up many big fish further out.
“So many sharks want to come here, but they catch them,” says Jean-Francois.
“I often see the big boats, and if I don’t see them, every day I hear them,” he says.
But overfishing by locals means that the shorelines are no longer a refuge for sharks. It took Blue Ventures some time to explain that sharks played an important role as “policemen of the sea” controlling other species and ecosystems before people understood their worth in the water.
On the tiny and barren island of Andragnambala, there are no schools or clinics, just a cluster of huts housing around 160 people – all of whom depend solely on fishing to survive.
“If you don’t earn from fish here, you’d suffer miserably,” says shark monitor Lydia Lamy, whose husband has just pulled in a shark that turns out to be pregnant with six well-formed pups. The catch will net him the equivalent of $2.50.
Only a handful of people here have been to school, but the community knows that killing pregnant sharks is a bad idea.
And the men here know that the more fibrous a shark fin, the more they will get paid from collectors that make the 12 kilometer trip from the mainland.
“I can’t imagine what they want with the fins, but I know that they want the fibers,” says Aimé, a fisherman who has just pulled in a hammerhead shark – an endangered species – for the price of around 25,000 ariary, or $5.
Blue Ventures is slowly teaching people about the role of sharks in keeping other fish stocks healthy. They hope that the open data kit form might be used across Madagascar and beyond to shine a light on what’s happening in the blue.
Meanwhile, Lydia and Noavy are among 13 data collectors in eight villages that are trying to spread an important conservationist message: only by knowing what you have in the sea, can you protect it for future generations.
Like many along Lamboara’s coast, they would prefer to return to days when they were scared to let their children bathe in shallow waters full of pupping sharks, rather that live in a world without them.
“I want to protect sharks for our children’s future,” says 60-year-old fisherman Jean-Francois. “If we just keep catching them there will be nothing left.”