Rodrigues is a semi-autonomous dependency of the Republic of Mauritius, situated within the Mascarene Archipelago, a recognized global biodiversity hotspot. The island is of volcanic origin and is encompassed by an extensive fringing reef, with a wide shallow lagoon that covers an area of 240 km2. Fisheries are a vital source of employment, income and subsistence livelihoods in Rodrigues and play an important role in the local culture and traditions, and therefore their sustainable management is a priority. The fisheries of Rodrigues are highly diverse with over 100 fish species from a range of families recorded in fisheries sampling so far. In addition a variety of invertebrate species are also exploited. However, through the years, intensive fishing pressure in the lagoon has resulted in drastic declines of both finfish and invertebrate landings and degradation of lagoon habitats. Some important commercial species could become rare or even locally extinct if they are not protected. The isolation of Rodrigues also contributes to unusual and perhaps unique marine assemblages, and supports some endemic fish species.
Since 2001, the GEF Small Grants Programme (SGP) implemented by UNDP has undertaken a programmatic approach to promote integrated coastal and ocean governance in the area. Initially, during the period from 2001 till 2004 SGP supported the project “Sustainable Reef Fisheries Development in the Rodrigues Lagoon”, which became the catalyst for current marine conservation efforts in Rodrigues and resulted in the identification of 4 Marine Reserves in the northern lagoon by the fisher community. During implementation of this project, an inventory of local fish species was carried out by a team of local and international marine scientists to determine their populations. Several new endemic species of fish and corals were discovered during these surveys, namely “the Rodrigues Damsel” and the “Rodrigues Acropora”, named after the island. These studies and discoveries have been acknowledged in leading scientific journals namely in the UK (Allen & Wright, 2003; Heemstra et al., 2004).
During 2004 till 2006 SGP supported another project “Marine Environmental Education in the Local Community”, which lead to the development of the Marine Reserves by raising awareness amongst the local population about the need for protection and sustainable use of the marine environment. Some components in this project have been replicated in Mauritius several times by other NGOs and the Government, for example, the setting up of environmental corners in primary schools.
Two other SGP projects “The development of ecotourism in Rivière Banane as an alternative to fishing” and “Small-scale animal husbandry as a sustainable alternative to fishing” were funded in 2008. These projects supported the development of the Rivière Banane Marine Reserve, reducing the reliance of the local community on fishing and thus reducing illegal fishing within the reserve. The big challenge in these 2 projects has been to encourage fishers to change from a practice of day-to-day earnings towards the management of small community businesses where they have to share monthly incomes and re-invest part of it in running cost. This is still a challenge.
In 2009-2010 the SGP supported grant “Empowering the Southeast Marine Park Association Fisher Community through Ecotourism Development” supported the fisher community of the southern region through the creation of alternative livelihoods and thus limiting the exploitation of the lagoon. This project provided assistance to the fisher communities affected by the establishment of the marine protected area under a UNDP/GEF project.
In 2010-2012 the SGP grant “Improving Management Effectiveness for the Marine Protected Areas of Rodrigues” revitalized support for the Marine Reserves amongst both the local fisher community and the Rodrigues Regional Assembly (RRA). It provided training and support enabling local marine resource users to prepare a joint management plan for the four Marine Reserves.
SGP provided support in 2013 to the project “Alternative livelihoods and support for sustainable marine resource management in Rodrigues”. While previous projects built the momentum for sustainable management of marine resources in Rodrigues, this project is supporting the effective implementation of the Marine Reserves management plan as well as an island-wide octopus fishery closure.
Since 2015 to the present, the SGP grant “Empowerment of Off-Lagoon Fishers of Rodrigues” by Ter-Mer Rodrigues is working to empower fishers and local people for patrolling of illegal fishing and improving surveillance during closure season. The project supports the restoration of beacon lights, training on safety at sea, and distribution of fishing kits, first aids kits, and creation of five off-lagoon fishing co-operatives. It provides training on off-lagoon fishing techniques and is introducing new and more efficient fishing gear to promote sustainable and economically viable off-lagoon fisheries. The project is implementing a policy initiative for removing tax on fuel for registered off-lagoon fishers. The project is expected to contribute in the development of sustainable off-lagoon fisheries in Rodrigues through empowerment and continuous training of off-lagoon fishers.
In the course of over a decade of sustained involvement of SGP, working closely with civil society, communities and local government and other stakeholders, several significant results have been achieved as described below:
Four marine reserves were developed. A final joint marine reserve management plan was developed and adopted for the four new marine reserves in the northern Rodrigues lagoon. This is one of the first management plans in the region that has been written by local marine resource users. The marine protected area network in Rodrigues now covers close to 80 km2 of the reef and lagoon and will (once fully implemented) provide a refuge for marine biodiversity and help to restore fish and invertebrate stocks.
Capacity development. A series of training workshops and consultation meetings were also conducted with fishers, fisheries officers and tour operators to ensure that their interests were taken into consideration and addressed in the management actions.
Introduction of annual octopus fishing closure. As a result of the SGP projects, the Rodrigues Regional Assembly (RRA) took a policy decision to ban octopus fishing each year for two months from August to October to allow for their replenishment in the lagoon. In this context, the RRA’s policy is to provide alternative activities to redundant fishers during the octopus fishery closure. SGP supported the initiation and first 2 years of alternative livelihood opportunities to the fishers.
Policy Change. Another policy decision of the RRA was to move from traditional systems of “financial compensation to fishers” to a system of remuneration for carrying out ecosystem services such as forestry works (weeding and removal of exotic and invasive species); rivers and reservoirs cleaning and rehabilitation; pasture and land preparation, drain maintenance; clean-up of paths and trails; clean-up of islets, dredging and deepening of natural lagoon channels, and cleaning and embellishment of public building and space. Following the re-opening of the first octopus fishery closure initiative of 2012, an octopus catch of 294 Tons of octopus was landed during the first 48 days of fishing activities. That was equivalent to the mean annual production of the last six years (288 ton/year). This strongly suggests that the octopus closure is a crucial octopus fishery management measure. An octopus catch of 570.66 Tons was consequently recorded for the year. Four consecutive closures have seen the same trend. Based on these positive impacts, the RRA is now seriously thinking of having a second annual closure, most probably during the months of January and February as these are reportedly the months when the young octopuses which have been hatched during the first closure will grow bigger.
Mainland Mauritius Policy Change. Based on the successful octopus fishery closure in Rodrigues, a small-scale similar voluntary trial closure was carried out in the south-east region of mainland Mauritius in 2015. In 2016, the Ministry of Ocean Economy, Marine Resources, Fisheries, Shipping and Outer Islands has now embarked on a national closure from 15 August to 15 October given the steep decline of octopus fisheries to only 30 tons of octopus catch annually. They are partnering with the SGP and the FAO Smartfish Programme implemented through the Indian Ocean Commission (IOC) to support this closure. A regulation is under preparation and is expected to be passed in Parliament shortly. This initiative shows the transfer of lessons, replication of experience, and upscaling to national level.