Science for Everyone

Aquaculture from Maine to Madagascar

Guest blog post by Research Technician Bailey Moritz

 Baby sea cucumbers ready to grow!

Baby sea cucumbers ready to grow!

 Building new sea cucumber pens in the tidal flats

Building new sea cucumber pens in the tidal flats

This spring, before returning to Hurricane, I spent 3 months on a much larger island- Madagascar, that is- as an Aquaculture Intern with Reef Doctor, an organization working on many fronts to address extreme poverty and rapidly dwindling fisheries in villages along the southwestern coast of the African country. The Vezo, whose name means “people of the sea”, rely almost entirely on fishing everything from octopus to parrotfish to sea turtles to make a living and provide food for their household. But as population increases, extra pressure on an already overfished reef system risks leaving people without a source of income. Boats already come in empty, and many have resorted to dragging mosquito nets along the beach, which catch even the smallest juvenile fish. While damage to the ecosystem and marine populations are grim, you cannot simply tell people to stop fishing. Instead, Reef Doctor has set up community run seaweed and sea cucumber aquaculture farms in villages all around the Bay to provide an alternative livelihood that is sustainable both for the ocean and the people depending on it. 

 Cleaning a seaweed line free of sediment

Cleaning a seaweed line free of sediment

 Villagers drying their harvest on mesh tables (Image courtesy of ReefDoctor)

Villagers drying their harvest on mesh tables (Image courtesy of ReefDoctor)

A globally prevalent seaweed for carrageenan extraction, Kappaphycus alvarezii, is grown on longlines that create habitat for small fish and squid. We rowed out to the farms and assisted with almost daily cleaning of sediment build up that would inhibit growth and checked for damaging invasive epiphytic algae. Ranging from bright green to brown while growing, it dries into a beautiful purple color and is bagged and sold by the kilo to a local processor. The sea cucumbers, called “sand fish”, are farmed in near shore plastic mesh pens. It takes about a year to raise them to market size at which time they are salted and shipped to Asian buyers. Families participating in the sea cucumber program have seen an average increase of 2.53 USD/day of income. I got to help build and stock pens for 20 new farmers since the program has shown so much success. The great thing about sea cucumbers is, just like shellfish, they broadcast spawn, meaning they release their eggs into the ocean and can actually contribute to wild population numbers. I was very impressed with how well both forms of aquaculture were integrated into the local villages and the benefits already accrued after just 3 years of operating!

 Wooden canoes called "pirogues" traditionally used for everyday fishing

Wooden canoes called "pirogues" traditionally used for everyday fishing

For me, the parallels to aquaculture in Maine and the role it serves were evident. While sturdy mooring buoys replace the recycled plastic water bottles of Mada, seaweed farming has been bringing a viable source of alternative income to Maine’s fishermen who already have much of the gear and on-the-water knowledge needed to be successful. While waters warm in the Gulf of Maine and threaten lobster catches, coastal communities here need something they can turn to or fall back on in case the wild-caught fishery they work in crashes. Right now, both Maine and Madagascar farms are being driven by community members who are excited about the potential it holds and recognize the need for a livelihood that helps to improve the ecosystem rather than only extract from it. And in both communities, there is an important role for researchers to play in carrying out experiments with the goal of optimizing growth under local conditions and training farmers on the best methods to utilize for success. While never a silver bullet, my time in Madagascar taught me that aquaculture can and actively is addressing environmental and social problems in communities all across the globe.

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