This article was originally posted by hakai magazine.
George Thomas Freson was 4 years old the first time his grandfather put him in a lacquera wooden sailing canoe, and headed out into the Indian Ocean.
It was the late 1980s, and on the western shores of Madagascar, Freson’s grandfather was beginning to teach him the traditional fishing methods his family had practiced for generations.
Much of what Freson learned was not actually about fishing, but about the weather. In the inky morning before dawn, his grandfather would show him how to read the stars and the clouds, how to measure the speed and direction of the wind, and how to measure the height of the waves breaking on the beaches of their town. , Ampasimandroro.
“That’s how we’d know if it’s safe to fish,” says Freson, now 37 and a professional fisherman.
But in her lifetime, she’s seen the storms on this stretch of white-sand coastline become more extreme and fickle. Conditions force fishermen to stay at home. But “if we don’t go to the sea, we don’t have an income,” says Freson.
Freson’s experience in rougher seas is accurate. According to new research, the Indian Ocean is really getting stormier. From 1979 to 2020, communities in this part of Madagascar lost, on average, more than 20 hours of fishing time each year. A fisherman now has 800 fewer hours to fish in an average year than he would have had four decades ago.
PhD candidate Samantha Farquhar, of East Carolina University in North Carolina, and her colleagues interviewed fishermen who work on Nosy Barren, the small chain of islands where Freson fishes. Using fishermen’s descriptions of dangerous wind speeds, wind directions, and wave heights, the researchers examined modeled weather data from 1979 to 2020 to estimate how often weather conditions made fishing impossible.
“If the weather is bad, we don’t have a choice,” says José Todisoa Foregna, a fisherman who lives in the town of Maintirano, near Nosy Barren. “We just have to stay home and wait for it to pass.”
Fisheries in Madagascar are among the most vulnerable in the world to storms, but the windows of safe weather for fishing are narrowing around the world. Artisanal fishing employs more than 110 million people worldwide. But as climate change increases extreme coastal weather, it becomes more difficult and dangerous for fishermen to work.
“That could have huge implications for nutrition, livelihoods and food security around the world,” says Farquhar.
Reduced fishing opportunities cause a wide range of ripple effects. In Belize and the Dominican Republic, for example, research has documented that where fishermen are faced with increasingly extreme weather, they tend to fish more intensively when it is calm. Since storms can also hit fish habitats, this double whammy can quickly begin to deplete fish populations. For fishermen facing rougher seas, storms can damage boats and fishing gear or make it difficult to deliver their catch to markets on time, further reducing net wages. And having fewer opportunities to fish may cause anglers to consider taking greater physical risks to make ends meet.
In Nosy Barren, fishermen want better weather reports against which to check their own knowledge of waves and wind, as well as alternative sources of work during storms. For the fishermen of Madagascar, climate change is not a remote possibility; it is a real and present danger. “There are a lot of high-level conversations around adaptation strategies for fisheries,” says Farquhar. “But the change must happen now.”
Ultimately, Freson says, he would prefer his own family to be less dependent on the ocean. She still takes his three children to the water, just as his grandfather did with him. They learn to read the stars and clouds, just like he did. But he hopes they don’t need this knowledge for his livelihood.
“I don’t prefer my sons to become fishermen,” he says. “I want them to find a good job in an office. This is just your backup.”
Francis Nirindrainy Aviso contributed reporting.