ANTANANARIVO, May 29 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In a small boat off the coast of Madagascar, Idrissa Tsirvelo struggled with a spanner on his rusted dive cylinder, then put a regulator in his mouth and disappeared under the water, risking death illegally harvesting sea cucumbers from the ocean floor.
Deep sea diving for the worm-like marine animals - a delicacy selling for hundreds of dollars in Asia - can lead to death, injury or paralysis, but many young men in the Indian Ocean island say they have no other means of survival.
“This work really scares me,” said Tsirvelo. “As humans we are not meant to live underwater.”
Madagascar, the world’s fourth largest island, is one of the poorest countries in Africa. With some 5,000 km (3,100 miles) of coastline, many of its people rely on the ocean to survive.
Divers are not the only ones at risk. Marine life is also rapidly being exhausted. Almost 90 percent of global fish stocks are fully or overfished, according to the United Nations.
As global fish stocks are threatened with collapse, locals around the coast in southern Madagascar have pioneered safer fishing alternatives that protect the natural world.
“When I was a kid I went fishing with my dad and there was plenty,” said Clin Ratsimbazafy, who is part of a grassroots initiative to stop overfishing.
“But that changed and we had nothing, until we learned how to preserve marine resources,” he said, sitting fixing his nets in the late afternoon sun in Andavadoaka, a village on Madagascar’s southwest coast, after a day out at sea.
Madagascar’s first locally managed marine area (LMMA) was set up in 2006 and is called Velondriake, which means living with the ocean. It has blossomed, spawning more than 100 LMMAs on the island and as far afield as Fiji and Costa Rica.
Visitors have come all the way from Mexico to learn about Velondriake’s octopus reserves - areas closed to fishing to allow octopus to grow to full size, replenishing stocks and maximising catches.
“Once we told them about how the depletion of the resources would negatively affect them, they realised how important it is to protect the resources that they use every day,” said Velondriake’s president Richard Badouraly.
Madagascar bans using deep sea dive equipment to harvest sea cucumbers in order to protect the plundered species.
However, locals say the practice persists as foreigners, particularly Chinese, pay a high price to fishermen while officials are bribed to turn a blind eye.
“Madagascar is one of the most corrupt countries in the world,” said Ndranto Razakamanarina, president of Alliance Voahary Gasy, an alliance of almost 30 environmental groups.
Madagascar’s fisheries ministry did not respond to requests to comment.
Working with the government, communities now manage 11 percent of the Malagasy coastline often using customary environmental law known as the dina, according to Blue Ventures, a UK-based conservation group supporting the initiative.
Velondriake is the largest locally managed marine reserve in the Indian Ocean, spanning 640 square km (247 square miles).
To compensate for temporary and in some cases, permanent closures, diversification has been vital. In Tampolove village, the community has learned to farm the sea.
Hundreds of aquaculture farmers - many of them women - grow seaweed and raise baby sea cucumbers in ocean pens for sale to local seafood exporters.
This has transformed lives as sea cucumber farmers can earn $124 a month, triple the average income in the area, said Liz Day, a manager with Blue Ventures.
“Life was very hard before we started farming sea cucumber and seaweed,” said Nadia Rasolonaina, one of about 30 women who wade out into shallow waters to clean and monitor their pens.
“I had to leave my children with my older brother as I didn’t have any source of income. It broke my heart. Now they are back, my heart is at ease.”
Back on the ocean, Olivie Zaratombo sat in the boat waiting for Tsirvelo to return with their sea cucumber catch.
“I don’t want my child to follow in my footsteps,” said Zaratombo, unable to dive as his equipment was broken. “It is becoming more dangerous and the resource is depleting.”
Like most Malagasys, he learned to dive from his father with no formal training. He has seen many accidents.
“Not long ago one, of my friends went diving and did not come back,” Zaratombo said. “I went out to look for him every day but only discovered he had died when his body floated to the surface three days later.”
Velondriake’s Badouraly hopes that other communities will adopt their grassroots conservation approach, before endangered species become extinct.
"It'll be the same as us having never seen dinosaurs," he said. "My hope for the future is that all communities will be satisfied with the harvest of the sea, and everything will grow." (Reporting by Nicky Milne, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org)