Toliara Barrier Reef, Madagascar

Toliar Barrier Reef, Madagascar Photo
©Tim McClanahan
Andavadoaka, Madagascar Slideshow
In the Andavadoaka region of Madagascar’s southwest coast, the Vezo people have subsisted on the bounty of the Toliar Barrier Reef for centuries. But the lobsters, finfish, octopus, and coastal dolphins they depend on are growing scarce. WCS conservationists are working to establish marine fishery reserves to ensure this fragile seascape and the traditional livelihoods it supports remain intact.
Julie Larsen Maher©WCS
Pirogue fishing boat Photo
In the waters just south of the Mozambique Channel that borders much of Madagascar’s west coast, traditional Vezo fishermen ply their trade from simple hand-carved wooden canoes, called "pirogues."
Julie Larsen Maher©WCS
Fishing in Mozambique Channel Photo
A fisherman swims a nets around a school of fish. Small-mesh fishing nets like this one can result in high levels of bycatch. WCS is working to promote more sustainable fishing gear.
Julie Larsen Maher©WCS
Toliar Barrier Reef Fish and Coral Photo
Most of the fishing activity takes place within the nearest reaches of one of the world’s largest barrier reef systems, the Toliar Barrier Reef, since the pirogues cannot travel far. These reefs are among the most biodiverse in the Western Indian Ocean.
©Caleb McClennen/WCS
Vezo fishing boy with catch Photo
A boy watches over the village catch as it dries in the sun. Overfishing in the region has devastated fish populations, with serious consequences for the reef systems and for the Vezo tribe.
Julie Larsen Maher©WCS
Starfish in Toliar Barrier Reef Photo
In addition to overfishing and destructive fishing practices, land pollution and the harmful effects of climate change can also have serious consequences for fragile coral reef ecosystems.
©Caleb McClennen/WCS
Ben Mahafalay Madagascar Marine Photo
WCS conservationist Bemahafaly Randriamanantsoa (center) monitors fishing activity to ensure catches meet size requirements. WCS has been helping the reef’s depleted fish stocks recover by establishing marine reserves that are subject to temporary closures.
Julie Larsen Maher©WCS
Shark finning Photo
In addition to fishing, the Vezo people also hunt coastal dolphins and sharks in local waters. A growing global market for shark fins is depleting shark populations around the world.
Julie Larsen Maher©WCS
Madagascar Photo
Though the Vezo people have had very limited economic opportunities, tourists are beginning to visit new resorts in the area. WCS is working to ensure the tourism industry grows sustainably and with respect for this spectacular seascape.
Julie Larsen Maher©WCS

Madagascar’s southwestern coast supports the third largest coral reef system in the world. The Toliara reef system is made up of barrier and fringing reefs, shallow lagoons, and abyssal slopes. It is one of very few places in the world inhabited by the coelacanth, a 400-million-year-old species of fish. The region attracts sea turtles from all over the Western Indian Ocean. The Vezo people who live in this coastal region practice a traditional lifestyle that is almost entirely dependent on the coral reefs. Local villages have traditionally relied on catching sea cucumbers and octopus, and fishing on near-shore coral reefs as their sole source of income.

Fast Facts

  • The Toliara reef system extends for more than 185 miles.
  • More than 6,000 species of wildlife have been recorded living in the reef system.
  • The Vezo are renowned as the best fishermen in Madagascar.


Pressure on this productive ecosystem has increased dramatically in recent times. The number of people living in the region continues to rise, and commercial demand has led to more intensive harvesting of its resources. Global demand for shark fins and sea cucumbers has created a major export market for these species in Madagascar. Poor law enforcement and ineffective resource management have contributed to overexploitation of these and other marine species. The barrier reef is also significantly affected by climate change; past bleaching events have had devastating impacts on the reef system. Improved fishery management and conservation measures are critical for the survival of this ecosystem.

WCS Responds

WCS has been helping to conserve marine ecosystems in Madagascar since 1991. Along the Toliara barrier reef we are working with local communities and government agencies to promote sustainable development to protect both human livelihoods and precious marine life.

WCS is helping pilot a range of management protocols in the Toliara Barrier Reef in collaboration with the IHSM (Institut Halieutique et des Sciences Marines) and SRPRH (Service Regional de la Peche et des Resources Halieutiques). IHSM and SRPRH are developing a network of 50 small marine reserves along the barrier reef north of Toliara with support from various donors. In order for these reserves to be successful, it will require a complete fisheries management regime with multiple use zones and continued scientific monitoring across the seascape. 

Within this seascape, the results of recent publications by WCS demonstrate that beyond area-based management such as reserves, system-wide gear management and seasonal restrictions are equally if not more important for the long-term viability of coral reef ecosystems. 

WCS is also helping to save coastal cetaceans such as spinner, Indo-Pacific bottlenose, and Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins from community hunting. In the village of Anakao, we have helped fishermen establish community closures, called dina, to protect these species from exploitation.

WCS Projects

Regulating Shark & Ray Fisheries

Shark fisheries have expanded in size and number around the world since the mid-1980s to meet the rapidly rising demand for shark fins, meat, and cartilage. Most of these fisheries are unregulated and undocumented. As a result, numerous shark species now face extinction. WCS is working to improve regulation of the global trade in shark products to reverse the decline of these remarkable fishes.

From the Newsroom

Scientists Pinpoint Cause of Mysterious Whale Stranding September 25, 2013

For the first time, a mass stranding of whales has been attributed to sonar mapping.

Helping Corals Survive a Changing ClimateApril 22, 2013

Coral reef fisheries expert Dr. Tim McClanahan highlights the resilience of coral reefs and the conservation efforts that will help them adapt to changing conditions.

Madagascar Gets 'Roadmap' To Conserving Marine LifeFebruary 27, 2012

A study by WCS and partners presents a novel approach for establishing new large-scale protected areas in Madagascar’s waters.

Marine Mammals on the MenuJanuary 24, 2012

A newly released study finds that people are increasingly consuming marine mammals—including some very rare species, like the Fraser’s dolphin—in more than 100 countries around the world.

Fishing Communities Put the Heat on Climate Change TalksDecember 8, 2011

As global leaders convene in Durban, South Africa to tackle climate change, WCS coral reef fisheries expert Dr. Tim McClanahan and his colleague Dr. Joshua Cinner urge action on behalf of the world’s fishing communities dependent upon the increasingly threatened bounty of warming tropical seas.


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