This article was originally published by Hakai Magazine.
George Thomas Freson was 4 years old the first time his grandfather placed him in a lakaa wooden sailing canoe, and headed out to 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 was not about fishing at all, but about the weather. In the dark morning before dawn, his grandfather showed him how to read the stars and clouds, how to measure the speed and direction of the wind, and how to gauge the height of the waves crashing on the beaches of their village. , Ampasimandroro.
“That’s how we would know if it’s safe to fish,” says Freson, now 37 and a professional fisherman himself.
But over his lifetime, he’s seen the storms on this stretch of white-sand coastline become more extreme and changeable. The conditions force fishermen to stay at home. But “if we don’t go to the sea, we have no income,” says Freson.
Freson’s experience of 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 an average of more than 20 hours of fishing per year. A fisherman now has 800 fewer fishing hours per year on average than four decades ago.
Doctoral student Samantha Farquhar, from East Carolina University in North Carolina, and her colleagues interviewed fishermen who work in Nosy Barren, the small string of islands where Freson fishes. Using fishermen’s descriptions of dangerous wind speeds, wind directions and wave heights, researchers looked at modeled weather data from 1979 to 2020 to estimate how often weather conditions made fishing impossible.
“If the weather is bad, we have no choice,” said José Todisoa Foregna, a fisherman based in the town of Maintirano, near Nosy Barren. “We just have to stay home and wait for it to pass.”
Madagascar’s fisheries are among the world’s most vulnerable to storms, but windows of safe fishing weather are shrinking worldwide. Artisanal fishing employs more than 110 million people worldwide. But as climate change increases extreme weather conditions on the coasts, it becomes more difficult and dangerous for fishermen to work.
“It could have huge implications for nutrition, for livelihoods, for food security around the world,” Farquhar says.
Reduced fishing opportunities lead to a wide range of spillover effects. In Belize and the Dominican Republic, for example, research has shown that where anglers face increasingly extreme weather, they tend to fish more intensely when the weather is calm. Since storms can also hit fish habitats, this double whammy can quickly begin to deplete fish populations. For fishermen who brave rougher seas, storms can damage boats and fishing gear or make it harder to get their catch to market on time, further reducing take-home pay. And having fewer chances to fish may cause anglers to consider taking more physical risks to make ends meet.
In Nosy Barren, fishermen want better weather reports with which to cross-check their own knowledge of waves and wind, as well as alternative sources of work during storms. For fishermen in Madagascar, climate change is not a remote possibility; it is a real and present danger. “There’s a lot of high-level discussion about adaptation strategies for fisheries,” says Farquhar. “But change has to happen now.”
Ultimately, Freson says, he’d rather his own family were less dependent on the ocean. He still takes his three sons on the water, just like his grandfather did with him. They learn to read stars and clouds, just like him. But he hopes they won’t need this knowledge to earn a living.
“I don’t prefer my boys to become fishermen,” he says. “I wish them to find a good job in an office. It’s just their backup.
Francis Nirindrainy Avisoa contributed reporting.