Festival of the Sea | Jonathan Skinner

Sainte Luce fishermen in handmade pigoues (canoes) rowing out to check their lobster pots – J. Skinner, April 2019

We caught up with Dr Jonathan Skinner, Reader in Social Anthropology from the Department of Life Sciences who tells us about his adventure to Madagascar with Paul Antick, Senior Lecturer in Media, Culture and Language. In partnership with an organisation SEED (Sustainable Environment, Education and Development) Madagascar, they organised the Festival of the Sea, a celebration of best practice for lobster conservation with 53 artists and 2,000 attendees over two days. Dr Skinner is a social anthropologist and works in the arts and humanities, specialising in tourism regeneration, carnival, festival work and social dance.

There were no bins where I was staying. This was one of the first things I noticed first and stayed with me during my first visit to Sainte Luce, Madagascar. Jerry’s Huts sits right by the sea with very limited running water and electricity. It has a continual breeze from the sea that keeps the air fresh and the mosquitos away, and the ocean crashes in day and night. I was opening my food packs from the UK but there was nowhere to put the plastic wrappers. In fact there were scant plastics around at all. I was in what SEED Madagascar staff colloquially call ‘the bush’.

Sainte Luce is more coastal than bush environment. It is in the Anosy part of southeast Madagascar, 50km northeast of Fort Dauphin. A coastal region where French settlers first arrived, present day Sainte Luce, the 2400 inhabitants depend on natural maritime resources, local forestry, subsistence agriculture and mahampy reed weaving products (mats, hats, baskets). It is the centre of the lobster industry in the country: according to Azafady (2014: 4), 50% of Madagascar’s annual national spiny lobster catch comes from along an 150km stretch of coastline focused around the Sainte Luce village (approximately 18 tons/yr). 80% of Sainte Luce’s population depend upon this fishing (Sabatini at al 2007) making it the core means of income for the community.

In Madagascar, there are many taboos (‘fady’ such as not pointing, avoiding certain animals) and traditions (such as ‘kabary’ group discussions). SEED Madagascar had recently facilitated the re-establishment of a local Riaky sea committee responsible for local ‘dina’ (rules) to develop a new voluntary no-take zone (VNTZ) with closed and open seasons (currently open April to May and August to September inclusive). They did this through close, intense kabary discussion with the community, effectively co-producing a successful ‘community-managed small-scale lobster fishery’ (Long 2017a).

University of Roehampton and SEED Madagascar Re-harbouring Heritage grant partners – Hannah Shepherd, April 2019

I was the only person staying there at Jerry’s in Sainte Luce, visiting the SEED Madagascar NGO’s base camp nearby where they conduct their public health, social development, and conservation programmes that range from supplying village wells for safe, clean water to drink to reduce levels of diarrhoea; to recording the daily lobster catch, sales and effort endured by the fishermen to ultimately facilitate community-based, sustainable lobster management; to night patrolling bush transects counting lemur eyes shining back at you in the dark to assess annual animal levels and to facilitate their safe movement; and promoting and supporting a local women’s embroidery group, Project Stitch, with social enterprise, business advice and marketing platforms.

Project Stitch, Sainte Luce – J. Skinner, April 2019

I was to spend three nights in the bush, spending the days learning about the Voluntary No Take Zone (VNTZ) where local fishermen have agreed to operate a community lobster fishing regulation system of open and closed seasons, leaving female lobsters with eggs, lobsters less than 20cm in size and to not use nets, spears, harpoons or snorkels in their fishing. I was to liaise with the Chef Fokontany (Head of the Village) of local villages in preparation of a return visit in June when I was to bring a textile artist and a filmmaker from the UK, and a range of local and regional bands and dancers to hold a Festival of the Sea to celebrate marine cultural heritage: the traditional practices that best-suited conservation and sustainability, MCH as resilience in the people, and to swap skills and co-produce knowledge, artefacts and choreography. This was also an opportunity to test out the community engagement through festival approach on the islands (Skinner and Bryan 2015), and the conservation through carnival suggestion that we had developed in Anguilla in the Caribbean when examining a contentious sea turtle moratorium established until 2020 (EU BEST 2016).

EU BEST sea turtle conservation grant (ec.europa.eu/environment/nature/biodiversity/best/pdf/fs_saving_sea_turtles_en.pdf)

There, on a current British colony, the University of Roehampton partnered with the Government of Anguilla’s Department of Fisheries and Marine Resources Partner organisations, and the Anguilla National Trust. From 2016 to 2019 we have been working to mitigate the overexploitation of the sea turtle – ‘combining community action with scientific evidence to drive legislative change’ (EU BEST 2016). The project brought stakeholders together to engage in open dialogue about the island’s limited natural resources and their management. We combined scientific evidence of sea turtle foraging and breeding with information about the cultural heritage of local people to engage and increase national awareness and support for the sea reptile. One initiative was to join in the local Festival of the Sea with sea turtle floats to raise public awareness as to their plight (EU BEST 2016). To translate concepts: Anguilla used Malagasy techniques of kabary to transform and develop support structures for the animal, its husbandry, and its fishermen; the Sainte Luce Festival of the Sea was to use Caribbean carnival to celebrate best lobster conservation and fishing management practice in the community in the only NTZ in the Indian Ocean.

Musician awaits auditions at the entrance to Sainte Luce conservation zone – J. Skinner, April 2019

In the mornings – very early in the mornings – the lobster fishermen return with their catch from palm pots woven by their wives. The lobsters are measured and weighed before being sold on to collecteurs who send on the lobsters to the regional centre Fort Dauphin for international distribution. Many of the fishermen use boats owned by opérateurs and so have to sell the lobsters at uncompetitive prices to collecteurs working with the opérateurs. Stephen Long (2017b) notes that the development of No Take Zones concentrated the efforts of the fishermen, and brought them ‘bumper catches’, but an unexpected consequence of the surplus was to break to buyers’ monopoly, giving a 33% rise in price that added value to the fishermen and their families.

Measuring, weighing and selling the day’s lobster catch – J. Skinner, April 2019

There are exceptional musicians and dancers in the local community, and part of the visit was to audition them for the Festival of the Sea as well as troupes in Fort Dauphin so that was to be a local as well as regional event. Village life stopped when the drums and strings played and Group Dodomy entertained. Both the music and dancing can be described as traditional with a Southern African influence of polyrhythms and contrabody movements: stillness in the torso, fast leg movements up and down or side to side, hands flicking stylishly upwards and downwards characterise some of this dancing.

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