First steps: an Indian Ocean island community’s big move to save their octopus

An air of anticipation hangs over a crowd gathered on a beach on Pemba Island in Zanzibar, Tanzania. Under a grey sky, the people are waiting, sharpening their wooden spears, buckets in hand, ready to reopen their first ever octopus reserve to fishing. Stretching before them lies a reef flat laden with coral, rubble, sand, and – hopefully – what every person today has on their mind: big octopus.

At least 600 people are on the beach and the organisers, including the Chairpeople of the reserve committee, are a little nervous. Ngazi – named for the steps carved into the black reef cropping out around the flats and ending at the beach – is not a very big area, and octopus stocks here and in the rest of Pemba have diminished.

Kisiwa Panza community members await the grand opening of their first octopus reserve. Credit: Yann Yvergniaux/IOC-SmartFish.

Kisiwa Panza community members await the grand opening of their first octopus reserve. Credit: Yann Yvergniaux/IOC/SmartFish.

Octopus cyanea, or day octopus, fetch high prices on international markets and are found in local markets too. But besides their economic value, they are also a part of local fare and traditions, and the people of Zanzibar are not prepared to see octopus lost from their tropical waters.

This community of Kisiwa Panza now joins the ranks of others in the Indian Ocean, including in Rodrigues, Mauritius and Madagascar, who are operating octopus reserves. In these places, temporary closures are used to augment octopus stocks and spur communities into taking a more active hand in managing these important small-scale fisheries.

Before the moment of opening, our smiling orator (Ali Thani of Tanzania-based NGO, the Mwambao Coastal Community Network) thanks the fishers and community of Kisiwa Panza for their efforts and patience in protecting Ngazi during the three and a half month closure, and the authorities for supporting this collaborative effort – their first stab at saving Pemba’s dwindling octopus stocks.

As the tide nears its lowest, people pour onto the tidal flat and it’s only moments before the first octopus is caught.

I can’t help but pause in wonder at the octopus’ rapidly changing colours, its fantastically long tentacles, and cat-like eyes. This one is about 3 kilos, larger than the pre-closure averages of 500 grams…already a promising sign.

An octopus hides in the reefs of Ngazi. Credit: Kate England/FFI.

An octopus hides in the reefs of Ngazi. Credit: Kate England/FFI.

Alongside the fishers are staff from Mwambao, SmartFish and Fauna & Flora International, the three organisations supporting the community reserve. But with so many fishers on the reef flat, we wonder how many people will manage to catch an octopus – and how those who don’t will react.

Eels, catfish, and juvenile fish dart around the branching and brain hard corals and blooming soft corals at the fishers’ feet, while shrimps shoot in and out of holes and underneath seaweed-covered rocks.

Looking up, I see women and children gathering around the edges of the flats, scooping up catfish easily in their kangas as they rush out from underneath the tidal rubble. Perhaps it was not only octopus on this flat teeming with life that had reaped the benefits of repose during the fishery closure.

Two women fish on the reef flats using traditional spears. Credit: Kate England/FFI.

Two women fish on the reef flats using traditional spears. Credit: Kate England/FFI.

While fishers continue gently probing the reef for octopus, community monitors station themselves at landing sites on the beach and underneath a mango tree, and prepare for the rush of octopus expected that day. One who shows up a little late finds himself facing a small crowd of fishers already waiting impatiently to weigh and sell their octopus to buyers gathered in the shade nearby.

Each catch is weighed in its entirety, and then each octopus is pulled from a sack or bucket and measured from head to the tip of its tentacle using a tailor’s tape. After determining their sex, each octopus is placed with a slop on the scales and weighed individually.

Reflecting back and looking ahead

Later on, we will be helping members of the community to analyse these data, so that they can evaluate the effects of their closure on octopus capture.

It will take a little time to see the real impacts and account for the high number of fishers who turned out that day to fish the newly opened area, but we know that a total of 660 kg of octopus was landed on that day alone – about the amount normally caught on their entire fishing grounds over a week.

Hamisi sexes an octopus at a landing site in Kisiwa Panza. Credit: Kate England/FFI.

Hamisi, a community octopus monitor, sexes an octopus at a landing site in Kisiwa Panza the day before the reopening. Credit: Kate England/FFI.

Those who had caught octopus that day proclaimed the ones from Ngazi were bigger than usual! Even better, allowing the octopus more time to grow also gave them a better chance of reproducing.

But, from the murmurs we heard, the area hadn’t been big enough and the closure too short where the people are many. This community wanted to do more – they wanted more action, more benefits.

As partners of the authorities and local community, we’ll be sticking around to see their efforts through.

Behind the scenes we are working to build the skills of both community members and authorities to manage their fisheries on Pemba Island. Once we’ve looked at what worked, and what didn’t – and for whom it worked and for whom it didn’t – an important dialogue on next steps will be revived with the community.

Our hope is that the next closure will not only bring bigger octopus to more people – but more determination and capability within Pemba’s communities to act themselves to save their fisheries.

Main image credit: Yann Yvergniaux/IOC/SmartFish.