- A recent decision by the Malagasy government to grant permits to export live mud crabs to five Chinese companies has sparked controversy and highlighted the country’s struggle to sustainably manage an overexploited fishery.
- Civil society organizations like Southern African Regional Non-State Platform in Fisheries and Aquaculture (SANSAFA) Madagascar and the National Network of Women in Fisheries in Madagascar (RENAFEP) are demanding the ministry cancel the permits, saying the move harms local fishers and businesses.
- For some, the opposition to the permits is rooted in resentment that coastal communities work to restore habitats and bear the brunt of fishing closures and restrictions while outsiders reap the rewards.
- Even as exports of live crabs boom, the absence of an overarching national strategy and the lack of data to guide measures is hurting efforts to make the fisheries more sustainable, experts say.
For crab fishers on the western coast of Madagascar, where incomes are less than a thirtieth of those in the U.S., the Lunar New Year brings some cheer. Demand spikes for live mud crabs, considered a delicacy in China, and so does the price the crustaceans fetch.
This hunger for live crabs is fueling a boom in Madagascar’s crab exports, now valued at nearly $10 million a year. But a recent decision by the Malagasy government to grant permits to export live mud crabs exclusively to five Chinese companies has sparked controversy and highlighted the country’s struggle to sustainably manage an overexploited fishery.
The agriculture and fisheries ministry granted the permits in April to Santi Import-Export, Dragon de la Mer, Ocean Export, Drakk Company, and Mapro-Sud, but the decision came to light recently through local media reports.
Civil society organizations like Southern African Regional Non-State Platform in Fisheries and Aquaculture (SANSAFA) Madagascar and the National Network of Women in Fisheries in Madagascar (RENAFEP) say the move harms local fishers and businesses. They are demanding the ministry cancel the permits.
Issuing export permits to foreign companies will exacerbate the problem of unsustainable fishing, SANSAFA and RENAFEP said in a statement. In the short term, the export demand pushes up prices and leads to more harvesting; in the long term, a rush to satisfy overseas demand threatens the sustainability of the local fisheries, the groups said.
The two organizations also alleged that the five companies are owned by a single individual. Mongabay was unable to independently verify the claim.
Local vs. foreign businesses
The fourth-largest island in the world is blessed with a coastline of 4,828 kilometers (3,000 miles). Around 1.5 million Malagasy people rely directly on fisheries to make a living. Fisheries don’t just provide jobs; they also provide food, and crabs are an important part of the Malagasy diet.
But today, about half of Madagascar’s crab catch is exported, and the export sector is dominated by foreign companies. In consultations held last year, ministry officials agreed to recommendations that domestic companies be given preference over outsiders in the crab fisheries sector.
The role of foreign players in the fisheries industry has often attracted scrutiny in Madagascar. Mongabay reported on opaque fisheries deals between Madagascar and the European Union, and Asian countries. More recently, a secretive $2.7 billion agreement between a Chinese private enterprise and a private Malagasy association inked in 2018 and touted as the biggest ever investment in Madagascar’s fisheries sector sank amid protests from local fishers.
The current controversy is limited to the right to export live crabs, but has also raised concerns about its impact on Malagasy fishers and exporters. The permits allow the Chinese companies to export 100 tons of live crabs every week, effectively shutting out local competition because the export quota was fixed at 4,250 tons per year in 2015.
Involving more Malagasy operators would not guarantee more sustainable management of crab catches, but it could benefit communities more, some argue. “Chinese companies exploit the resource, they do so in an unsustainable way,” said Lalaina Rakotonaivo, small-scale fishery officer at WWF.
Conservationists like Rakotonaivo say they hope Malagasy companies will work with local communities to restore mangroves and raise awareness about sustainable practices. That’s something, he added, Chinese companies do not do. “We want the government to give preference to national export companies because we hope that they will help build the local economy,” he said.
For some, the opposition to the permits is rooted in resentment that coastal communities work to restore habitats and bear the brunt of fishing closures and restriction — efforts that yield long-terms benefits, but for which outsiders reap the rewards.
Rising demand amid shrinking habitat
Mud crabs (Scylla serrata) live in mangroves that line the western coast of Madagascar. Their habitat has shrunk over the years, even as demand for crab meat has grown. The island lost more than 55,000 hectares (136,000 acres) of mangroves between1990 and 2010, a study estimated, a fifth of the country’s mangrove cover. Tropical trees that make up a mangrove thrive in salty, coastal environments.
In Madagascar, people chop them down for fuelwood, heating and construction. In some areas, entire patches of mangroves have given way to rice fields.
Their loss has squeezed nursery grounds for crabs and shrimp, two of Madagascar’s most valuable fishery exports. Mangrove restoration projects offer a glimmer of hope. An analysis done by WWF Madagascar found that though mangroves are still disappearing in Madagascar, the rate of net loss appears to have slowed since 2015, with restoration efforts showing results.
Most of the fisheries catch, including mud crabs, is produced by traditional fishing. Local fishers capture mud crabs with rudimentary fishing gear such as handlines, or simply snare them from burrows using hooks mounted on sticks.
France, which colonized Madagascar from 1896 till 1946, is one of the biggest importers of its mud crabs. In Europe, mud crabs can sell for almost 15 times the price in Malagasy markets. A majority of the exports are of frozen crabs, but demand for live crabs is rising. Big live crabs can sell for twice as much per unit weight as frozen crabs.
The demand for live crabs swelled in 2012 when live exports to China opened up. The value of crab exports has grown manifold since. It has also led to increased extraction. Annual crab catch was about 2,000 tons in 2010, but had risen to 6,650 tons by 2018, official records show.
Floundering efforts to regulate crab fishery
Crab fisheries are overexploited in Madagascar, according to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). After the export demand surged, the government introduced management measures in 2015, enacting fisheries closures, imposing a minimum size requirement of 11 centimeters (4.3 inches) to exclude juveniles and prohibiting capture of egg-bearing females and soft-shell crabs. The regulations also banned the cutting and sale of mangrove timber.
However, implementing the regulations has been far from smooth sailing. There were no closures in 2017 and 2018 because of questions about their effectiveness and lack of data to back decisions.
The estimate for the potential for crab fisheries, pegged at 7,500 tons annually, is 30 years old. The government intends to complete a new assessment of crab stocks later this year, under the World Bank- and FAO-backed SWIOFish project.
“Stabilizing or increasing crab production are not the only ways to maintain or improve income for fishers, wholesalers, and sub-collectors,” says a 2018 report from Blue Ventures, a U.K.-based nonprofit that works with communities on mangrove conservation and sustainable fisheries. “It is highly probable that their financial situation will worsen over time, due to ferocious competition and overexploitation of resources.”
One of the aims of the SWIOFish project is to reduce crab mortality during capture, storage and transport. In 2017, about 17.5% of the catch was lost after harvest. Reducing post-harvest losses, for instance by improving cold storage in the supply chain, could help meet export demand without increasing crab production.
But the absence of an overarching national strategy and the lack of data to guide measures is hurting efforts to make the fisheries more sustainable, according to experts.
When the current government, under President Andry Rajoelina, came to power in January 2019, there was hope that it would favor domestic companies and limit foreign competition in a bid to distance itself from murky foreign deals. That hope swelled again in September last year, when a national workshop looked at ways to promote sustainable exploitation. One of the recommendations from the meeting was to “give priority to national export companies managed by natives and originals of Madagascar at the level of exporters, and break the monopoly of crab operators and exporters,” Rakotonaivo said.
The recent decision belies that optimism. The order granting the permits has not been made public, and the lack of transparency surrounding it has fanned suspicions that local operators are losing out to foreigners. An investigative piece funded by Money Trail suggests that Chinese companies enjoy the backing of the political elite in Antananarivo.
The ministry of agriculture and fisheries did not respond to multiple attempts by Mongabay for comment. None of the companies granted permits have a digital presence or listed addresses, phone numbers or emails, and could not be reached for comment by the time this story was published.
Jones, T., Glass, L., Gandhi, S., Ravaoarinorotsihoarana, L., Carro, A., Benson, L., …Cripps, G. (2016). Madagascar’s mangroves: Quantifying nation-wide and ecosystem specific dynamics, and detailed contemporary mapping of distinct ecosystems. Remote Sensing, 8(2), 106. doi:10.3390/rs8020106
Banner Image: A mud crab (Scylla serrata)/ Image courtesy: Vengolis / CC BY-SA.
Malavika Vyawahare is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter: @MalavikaVy
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