Save our oceans

The humble sea cucumber is helping villagers in Madagascar secure a better future – and reaping huge benefits for the area’s marine biodiversity.

oceans 3
Edinburgh geosciences students at work with colleagues from Blue Ventures in Madagascar.

In 2001 Edinburgh undergraduate Alasdair Harris left the slate-grey waters of the Firth of Forth and travelled to the south-west coast of Madagascar, a place of ultramarine sea and blinding white sand.

His mission was to explore the local coral reefs, one of the largest such ecosystems in the world. By his own admission, he arrived armed only with “extraordinary hubris and a shiny degree in zoology”.

Both were rendered near useless by what he encountered in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Decades of over-fishing and rising sea temperatures had destroyed the reefs and much of the sea life.

According to the local Vezo communities, in the 1980s fishermen could fill an entire canoe with fish in just a few hours. Now, with dwindling stocks, that had become a fantastical talet o tell children around campfires.

Isolation and poverty meant that these communities were extremely vulnerable to such changes. They were dependent on fishing for food, income and identity. There was no alternative.

My scientific skills alone weren’t going to affect change. I needed toroll up my sleeves and get alongside these people.

Alasdair Harris

“What that trip taught me aged 21 was that science alone was interesting, but wasn’t going to shift the needle on any of the fundamentally human challenges and tragedies that people in Madagascar were facing,” says Dr Harris.

“My scientific skills alone weren’t going to affect change. I needed to roll up my sleeves and get alongside these people.”

He never really left.

Fast forward to 2015. The University of Edinburgh and the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation had recently signed an agreement and were looking for ways to collaborate. And so Dr Meriwether Wilson found herself by the yacht-flecked marina in Monaco.

A Senior Lecturer in Marine Science and Policy, she was attending the Monaco Blue Initiative, the Foundation’s platform for discussing current and future global challenges for oceans management and conservation.

Dr Harris was also there. In the intervening years, he had set up Blue Ventures, an NGO dedicated to protecting marine biodiversity in ways that benefit coastal people. He was already seeing significant results. Almost 20 per cent of Madagascar’s coastline was now under community management.

It was, by Dr Wilson’s admission, a “capricious” meeting. But when discussions progressed with the Foundation about a funded project, she instantly thought of Blue Ventures as a partner.

“They were so hardcore,” she said. “There was a shared ethic of empowering others and enabling change. Plus, we both just love being in the water.”

They arranged to meet to discuss possible joint projects that would harness both organisations’ strengths to help conserve the oceans.

“I thought, what do we have in common?” says Dr Wilson. “We could work on mangroves or blue carbon. But Al said, no, it’s going to be sea cucumber aquaculture.” She smiles and pauses, recreating the original bemusement. “I said, well, we’ll have to think about that one.”

Seaweed farmer, Tampolove
A seaweed farmer in Tampolove

Sea cucumbers are the unlikely heroes of this story. Grey, wrinkled and distinctly uncharismatic, once she heard about these bloated worm-like invertebrates, Dr Wilson quickly came around to their potential impact.

Since 2018, with funding from the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation, the University has partnered with Blue Ventures to work with two villages in Madagascar that have been ravaged by over-fishing, population growth and climate change.

Blue Ventures has been working with locals to develop sea cucumber farming for the past 10 years. Alongside seaweed aquaculture, sea cucumber farms reduce dependency on capture fishing by providing another way for communities to make a living. Rather than removing life from the fragile sea, the farms are adding to it. Sea cucumbers help maintain the sea bed and, therefore, help maintain stocks of other marine life.

“It’s a form of aquaculture that is having net positive ecological benefits,” says Dr Wilson. “There’s no pollution going in, no sea lice. It’s a very simple story, but it expands one’s view of what is marine conservation.”

However, the reason why it has been successful so far – with 162 farmers between the two villages – is not down to a romanticised ideal of returning the sea to an Eden-like state. It’s down to cold, hard economics.

Sea cucumbers are considered an aphrodisiac in Asian markets and can be sold for high value. Juvenile sea cucumbers cost $0.14. Once grown, they are sold for $1. The average monthly income per farm is more than $65, more than three times that of the area’s average household income.

To conserve the ocean, says Dr Harris, you must conserve the communities that depend on it.

“It is about mobilising people for rather than against conservation. You go to any part of the world, typically coastal communities will be up in arms against conservation, as that means denying access.

“But here that whole relationship has been shifted by changing that antagonistic dynamic, from one in which fishermen and women are seen as a threat to conservation to one that sees communities as the drivers of conservation.”

Staying true to Blue Ventures’ community first ethos, all the farms are planned, zoned and led entirely by locals, building upon traditional customs and social codes.

Blue Ventures’ Aquaculture Technician Toto collecting seaweed in Belo sur Mer, western Madagascar

The University provides the technology, scientific advice and international contacts. For the last 18 months, Dr Wilson’s team has been modelling how best to farm sea cucumbers in shallow lagoons, investigating how variations such as sea grass, water quality, sediment and tides affect production.

“It’s a bit like gardening,” she says. “If you plant the wrong thing at the wrong time in the wrong place, you’ll either have not enough of it or too much.”

Edinburgh geosciences students have also worked with locals to map who has access to the farming programme, who benefits and what the barriers are.

“These are people’s livelihoods,” says Dr Wilson. “It’s nice that we can, in theory, explain what needs to change.”

The sea cucumbers’ impact since their arrival into the lagoons of Madagascar has been significant. As well as the economic return and associated social benefits, there has been a replenishment of the coral reefs and recovery of fish populations within marine refuges established by local communities.

Building on the collective learning on how to establish sea cucumber farms, the project is being scaled up and rolled out in other communities on the island and further afield. Blue Ventures are already training communities in Tanzania, with great demand for similar support elsewhere.

Dr Harris’s wide-eyed trip in 2001 continues to cause ripples.

“Had Edinburgh not taken a massive gamble on an undergraduate who had a dream to take a bunch of fellow students to a country that he knew nothing about and explore coral reefs, none of this would have happened,” he says.

“Not many universities would enable students to have that entrepreneurial endeavour. But with a University start-up now employing more than 250 staff in low-income coastal areas across the Indian Ocean, Edinburgh has created a legacy here with tremendous impact.”

Related links

School of GeoSciences

Blue Ventures (external)

Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation (external)

Giving: global challenges