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George Thomas Freson was four years old the first time his grandfather put him into a laka, a 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 their family had practiced for generations.
Much of what Freson learned wasn’t actually about fishing at all, but about the weather. In the inky dark 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 gauge the height of the waves crashing over the beaches in their village, Ampasimandroro.
“This is how we would know if it is safe to fish,” says Freson, now 37 and a professional fisher himself.
But over the course of his lifetime, he has watched the storms on this stretch of white sand coast become more extreme and mercurial. The conditions force fishers to stay home. But “if we don’t go to the sea, we don’t have income,” Freson says.
Freson’s experience of rougher seas is accurate. According to new research, the Indian Ocean really is getting stormier. Between 1979 and 2020, communities in this part of Madagascar lost more than 20 hours of fishing time each year, on average. A fisher now has 800 fewer hours to fish per year on average than they would have had four decades ago.
Doctoral candidate Samantha Farquhar, at East Carolina University in North Carolina, and her colleagues interviewed fishers who work in Nosy Barren, the small chain of islands where Freson fishes. Using the fishers’ descriptions of dangerous wind speeds, wind directions, and wave heights, the researchers examined satellite weather data from 1979 to 2020 to estimate how often weather conditions made fishing impossible.
“If the weather is bad, we have no choice,” says José Todisoa Foregna, a fisher based in the city 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 windows of safe fishing weather are narrowing worldwide. Small-scale fisheries employ more than 110 million people globally. But as climate change dials up extreme coastal weather, it is becoming increasingly difficult and dangerous for the fishers to work.
“That could have huge implications for nutrition, for livelihoods, for food security around the world,” says Farquhar.
Shrinking fishing opportunities cause a wide range of ripple effects. In Belize and the Dominican Republic, for instance, research has documented that where fishers face increasingly extreme weather they fish more intensively when it’s calm. Given that storms can also batter fish habitat, this double whammy can quickly begin to deplete fish populations. For fishers who do brave rougher seas, storms can damage boats and fishing gear or make it more difficult to deliver their catches to markets in time, further reducing take-home pay. And having fewer chances to fish can make fishers consider taking greater physical risks to make ends meet.
In Nosy Barren, fishers want better weather reports to cross-check their own knowledge of the waves and wind—as well as alternative sources of work during storms. For Madagascar’s fishers, climate change isn’t a distant possibility, but a real and present danger. “There’s a lot of high-level conversation happening around adaptive strategies for fisheries,” Farquhar says. “But the change needs to happen now.”
Ultimately, Freson says, he would rather his own family be less dependent on the ocean. He still takes his three sons out on the water, just as his grandfather did with him. They learn to read the stars and the clouds, just as he did. But he hopes that they won’t need this knowledge for their livelihood.
“I don’t prefer for my boys to become fishermen,” he says. “I wish for them to find a good job in an office. This is just their backup.”
Francis Nirindrainy Avisoa contributed reporting.