Madagascar’s Marine Jewel – the Barren Isles archipelago

The Barren Isles archipelago, off the west coast of Madagascar in the Mozambique Channel, is one of the few remaining refuges of marine life in the western Indian Ocean. In addition to housing some of Madagascar’s healthiest and most productive coral reefs, this diverse ecosystem supports more than 4,000 traditional vezo fishers. The vezo live along Madagascar’s west coast and rely almost exclusively on the sea for survival and cultural identity.

Vezo fisherman with traditional canoe

Reasons to protect the Barren Isles abound. The coastal and marine ecosystem is extraordinarily diverse, with deep oceanic waters and coral reefs; extensive mangrove forests and estuarine marshes; and coastal dunes backed by dense semi-humid forest. The Isles are home to a wide range of endemic and endangered species. Perhaps most importantly, the Barren Isles’ coral reefs remain among the healthiest in Madagascar. Hard coral cover, a key indicator of reef health, ranges from 36.9% to 68%, and reef fish populations show biomass of up to 6,832 kg/hectare – the highest documented in Madagascar to date.

Conservation efforts around the Barren Isles began in 2005 with a joint initiative between WWF Madagascar and the Museum of Natural History of Geneva. Initially focusing on monitoring and protection of sea turtles, efforts expanded to create a regional dina (local law) which placed additional controls on habitation of the islands, and resulted in the creation of a local association called “Melaky Protecting its Marine Environment” (“Melaky Miaro ny Tontolo an-Driakany”). Since 2011, the British NGO Blue Ventures has picked up the torch, and is now leading an effort to turn the archipelago into Madagascar’s largest marine protected area (MPA).

View photos of the Barren Isles

Size and Location
The Barren Isles archipelago is located between 15 and 40 kilometres off the West Coast of Madagascar in the Melaky region. The Barren Isles Marine Protected Area (MPA), hopes to attain official status by 2014. The MPA would then encompass over 4,300 square kilometres. 

Flora and Fauna

Ecological surveys around the Barren Isles have thus far identified 51 species on the IUCN Red List. Among these are five of the seven species of sea turtles found around the world:  (the Green turtle (Chelonia mydas - EN), the Hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata - CR), the Loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta - EN), the Olive ridley turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea - VU) and the Leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea - CR).  Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae - LC), the scalloped hammerhead shark (Sphyrna lewini - EN), the increasingly rare Napolean wrasse (Cheilinus undulates - EN) and the “living fossil” Coelacanthe (Latimera chalumnae - CR) are also found in the area.


Largely untouched until recent decades, the Barren Isles now face threats familiar throughout the tropics: overfishing, driven by rapid population growth and uncontrolled migration; destructive fishing practices, such as the use of beach seine nets; illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, which is plundering sea cucumber and shark populations; and ongoing commercial mining and petroleum exploration.

Recognizing that the Barren Isles serve as a lifeline for traditional vezo fishers, the MPA seeks protection as an IUCN Category V “protected seascape” in which management efforts will focus on sustainable use. As the MPA would encompass over 4,300 square kilometres, it would be impossible to enforce without strong buy-in from traditional fishers, who can act as the MPA’s eyes and ears. As such, consultations have put local and migrant vezo fishers at the forefront of the MPA creation process, and have aimed to build on the success of Locally Managed Marine Areas (LMMAs) like Velondriake and Soariake, in southwest Madagascar. Key to the MPA creation process has also been an active dialogue with the industrial shrimp fishing lobby (Groupement des Aquaculteurs et Pêcheures de Crevettes de Madagascar), who have shown their support for the MPA by making considerable concessions of active fishing grounds.

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