Thursday, 02 March 2017 08:42

The intriguing Rodrigues comes in from the cold

By Wanjohi Kabukuru

[Hawaii, US] Ourite is the local name describing “octopus fishing” in Rodrigues which is a small island that lies 595kmkm east of Mauritius. The island stretch measures 18 km in length and at its widest point covers 8 kilometres.

The enchanting, Rodrigues Island [Image: CC- MA]

For generations ourite has been the traditional economic activity of Rodrigues. By walking on the reef flats armed with a spear or a metal stick to poke the dens where octopus shelter ourite thrives. In some other places it would be called harpooning. Much of this activity happens on the massive lagoon that surrounds Rodrigues. 

Ourite – octopus fishing is a major economic activity in Rodrigues [Image: CC-COI Archives]

In 1986 the IUCN had classified Rodrigues as having the most devastated flora and fauna in the world. 

Three decades ago Rodrigues had experienced the worst environment. In the 80s IUCN noted that Rodrigues had suffered the worst degradation. This degradation had began in the 50s when the islands had been turned into farms.

This island had been written off as a biodiversity area. 

30 years later and Rodrigues which is a volcanic island is a different story. According to Toky Rasoloarimanana of the Indian Ocean Commission (IOC) a raft of community participatory measures were instituted by the local population with the support of Rodrigues Assembly and the Mauritian government to reclaim Rodrigues from the brink. 

"Since 2014 Rodrigues Island has been organising a temporary fisheries closure with successful results." Toky says. "Coupled with a comprehensive reforestation programme and actual removal of plastics the fauna of Rodrigues has been restored."

Today Rodrigues is plastic free and a conservation triumph. Coupled with these Rodrigues was one of the success stories by islands that showcased its achievement reels at the IUCN World Conservation Congress held in Hawaii, in the US in late 2016.

Named after Portuguese explorer Dom Diogo Rodrigues sometime in 1528, this island is the smallest of all the Mascarene Islands (Mauritius, Reunion, Rodrigues and Cargados, Carajos Shoals). The 2000sq km Mascarene Plateau is the second largest in the Indian Ocean stretching from Seychelles touching off Reunion all the way down to Madagascar. Rodrigues is an autonomous part of Mauritius even though it seeks for full sovereignty. 

Restoration of café maron is one of Rodrigues successes [Image: CC-COI Archives]

The success of its fisheries closure programme and the fact that it is the first and so far the only Indian Ocean island to ban plastics usage are what have made it to stand out.

“We have been doing some major works in Rodrigues. Our goal is to make Rodrigues an ecological icon. It has a small population of 38000 who are very conscious of their environment.” Ginna Bonlamme in charge of environment at the inter governmental organisation the Indian Ocean Commission.  “We feel the islanders and we try to get the best that the islands can offer. Rodrigues is an example of what community and grassroots involvement can achieve.”

Rodrigues is entirely surrounded by corals. Today a larger and improved forest has been created in Rodrigues after the devastation suffered in the 80s.  Some of Rodrigues endemic species notably café maron, Rodrigues Fody, Rodrigues Warbler and Rodrigues Metioches superstes have been restored from the brink of extinction.

Rodrigues Warbler [Image: CC-COI]

“Since 2013 Rodrigues has been a plastic free island.” Rasoloarimanana says.  “A collective community and government with the support of the European Union saw Rodrigues recovering over  800000 tonnes of plastic.”

According to Rasoloarimanana this was done to enhance the appeal of the reclaim the islands biodiversity. “They tried to find local solutions to produce alternatives to plastics. It was a collective effort between the private sector and the government together with the local assembly.” Rasoloarimanana says.

Alongside the plastic ban was the instituting of an elaborate yet sensitive conservation programs which culminated into fisheries closure due in large measure to the role that Octopus fisheries plays in the economic lifeline of the islanders. Targeted  and well timed fisheries closure have been imposed to help spawn more octopus and other species. 

From 13th August to 12th October 2012 Octopus fishing was declared closed. This was the first time in the history of the island for octopus fishing to be imposed. The Rodrigues Fisheries Protection Service were assigned to monitor and enforce the closure within the lagoon. 

“The two month ban on fisheries allows species to recover and boost catches when the closure is lifted.” Rasoloarimanana says. 

A payment for environmental services (PES) was adopted by the Rodrigues assembly as a compensation policy, to cater for affected fishermen. Options to take part in other income generating activities were also encouraged to cover up for the fisheries closure duration.

The alternatives included agricultural land rehabilitation, maintenance of riverbeds, invasive plant species control, reservoirs and beach clean-ups. 

Outboard engine maintenance courses, community work, first aid training, seine fishing monitoring, swimming, maintenance of buoys in the South East Marine Protected Area (SEMPA) were also included as part of activities open to fishers affected by the closure.  The development of agro-processing and agro-forestry sectors was also initiated. 

 “The greatest success of the first edition of the ‘Octopus Closed Season’ is the emergence of a belief – both among fishers and within the administration – that it is possible to sustainably manage the fishery, and derive substantial profits.” Yann Yvergniaux, a Socio-economist, with the SmartFish Program who coordinated the closure program says.

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