Maicon Ratsiraka, 48, throws his eyes far into the still waters surrounding the African island nation of Madagascar.
Ten years ago he and his two brothers would harvest 60 kilograms of sardines every week, earning US$370 during good times.
Today, his six metre-long boat can no longer sail the three kilometres into the ocean where significant populations of sardines and prawns are found.
If he does, his boat is likely to be impeded or attacked by the massive Chinese, Thai and South Korean vessels that illegally poach fish in the Indian Ocean surrounding Madagascar.
As a result, his income has tumbled. As of this January, his weekly catch now earns him a mere US$57.
“We feel powerless, ashamed, jobless,” says Maicon who works in Toamasina, the country’s biggest seaport and second largest city after the capital, Antananarivo.
“Big Chinese ships are robbing us of fish and wiping away our livelihoods.”
Situated off the east African coast, Madagascar has some of the richest fishing stocks on the continent.
Its vast waters, however, are open to illegal, usually foreign, plunder.
Fishing statistics in Madagascar are poorly recorded but in 2008, an estimated 130, 000 tons of fish were caught in Madagascar.
But illegal fishing from foreign trawlers is threatening the livelihood of an estimated 100,000 people in 1250 coastal fishing communities across the country, but most severely in coastal cities like Toamasina and Nosy Be.
Local fishermen estimate that two foreign vessels can catch, process and freeze the same amount of fish that 30 open dhow boats can produce in one year.
These foreign pirate ships operate at night and are rarely caught, switching off their radio identification signals to evade police patrols.
Under the cover of darkness, gangs bring down illegal fishing nets fitted with deep hooks to trap high-value fish such as prawns, mackerel, tuna, shark and trout, which are then sold for a significant profit in the markets of Beijing, Seoul and Kuala Lumpur.
For example, shark fin soup, a delicacy in China, sells for as much as US$300 per bowl.
The Madagascar Fisheries and Wildlife Commission, a government body that regulates fishing permits, told Equal Times that by 2001 the shark fish population around Toamasina was decreasing by a rate of six per cent per year.
Fast forward to the period between 2005 and 2014, and that rate had jumped to 23 per cent.
“The fall in fish stocks is alarming for a poor island like ours,” Antonio Jengar, a government statistician, in Toamasina told Equal Times.
The Antananarivo Boat Fishers Agency, an affiliate of the national Confederation of Malagasy Workers, says that in 2004 there were 406 boat fishers under its membership.
In 2015, only 159 remain in employment.
“Most fishermen are discouraged by falling fish levels and boats rendered useless by Chinese poachers,” says Asiko Bombay, the union’s treasurer.
He says that many unemployed fishers have sold their boats in order to try their hand at rice farming instead.
“Foreign vessels are operating from gigantic mother ships fitted with instant freezing technology,” says Andrei Gatts a water ecology manager with the Madagascar Fauna and Flora Group (MFG), a consortium of international zoos, aquariums, botanical gardens and universities working with the Malagasy government to protect the country’s biodiversity.
Working through the night, they use smaller speed boats to supply mother ships lying further out at sea.
Prog Messa is leading a group of 100 fishermen in a court case to try and force the government to ban Chinese trawlers from fishing within 30 kilometres of the country’s shores.
“The Chinese are grounding us,” he said. “They are trying to stop us from fishing. They use mighty strength.”
No respect for marine life
Madagascar may have some of the world’s most precious marine species and 90 per cent of its wildlife cannot be found anywhere else on earth – but this is now at risk.
Meanwhile, marine tourism, which has created 10,000 direct jobs in towns like Toamasina and Morondava, is under serious strain.
“The Chinese don’t respect Madagascar’s marine life at all,” says Gatts.
Volanirina Ramahery, a marine program coordinator for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), tells Equal Times that there are laws in place to protect marine life in Madagascar but they “are not properly implemented”.
If this continues, the social and environmental results could be “very negative”.
“If they carry on as they are, they will push the ecosystem to the brink of collapse.
“The disappearance of sharks, for example, would devastate local marine habitats. A collapse in the shark fishing industry threatens economic stability and means a loss of direct livelihoods for thousands of fishermen.”
However, the government of Madagascar, weakened by decades of political instability, is powerless to stop the plunder of its sea wealth.
Madagascar, one of the world’s poorest countries with an income capita of just US$419, has just 11 police speed boats to patrol its 4828 kilometre coast.
Bombay claims that some police officers and public prosecutors are bribed by rich foreign ship owners to turn a blind eye to the plunder.
According to the Transparency International, Madagascar ranked 133 out of 175 in the world’s most corrupt countries index for 2014.
MFG says some Chinese ships are using DDT, a dangerous pesticide banned by the UN Stockholm Convention, in order to kill large quantities of fish at once.
But DDT also kills periphery sea life, and inhuman beings DDT has been linked to the development of some cancers and reproductive health complications.
Local workers who sound the alarm and challenge the trawler face intimidation and even violence.
Some whistle-blowers have been attacked with machetes by gangs hired by the poachers or have had their creaky boats taken apart at sea.
It is no surprise, therefore, that some local fish workers end up joining the illegal fish trade.
With no prospect of finding other work, some fishers ending up killing sharks to sell to the Chinese ships, earning as much as S$170 per kilogram.
“It’s an ecology disaster, horrible, I know,” admits one boat worker, “but this money feeds my family”.
Workers from rural villages are also being recruited to aid the poachers.
They use their hard-earned savings to spend US$800 on the promise of getting well-paid jobs on high seas ships.
But these recruitment scams leave workers at the mercy of poachers who force them to toil for weeks and even months on end without pay.
Inside the captive ships many complain of sharing cardboard bunks and working 18-hour shifts.
And instead of monetary payment some workers receive frozen fish which are of little value in the country’s fish markets.
“Men duped this way work at sea for weeks in Chinese ships with little air, in temperatures of 40°C, 50°C,” explains Genevieve Hodyo a local lawyer working with the fishermen’s union to get compensation for abused workers.
On various fronts there is a fierce battle taking place for control of Madagascar’s fish resources, and given the country’s fragile political and economic state, ensuring that the people of Madagascar actually benefit from its marine wealth will be crucial for the island’s future.