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The women of Rodrigues play an important role in the economy of the island. Present and active in many fields, often, they have numerous occupations: they look after a large family; cultivate plots of land with much energy and courage and rear livestock. As if these were not enough, there are some of the women who set out to sea out to sea where they have a very difficult job awaiting them: that of octopus' fisherwoman. This is a most respected woman’s trade in the island, which, unfortunately, brings in little money and is threatened by the impoverishment of the lagoon.

"Ourite Misère" ("Octopuses are getting rare" in creole)!

Denise welcomes me in her fishing boat with these meaningful words. She has been hunting down the octopuses in Port Sud-Est for 40 years now. She had started in this profession at the age of twelve and at that time, there were only about thirty of them; today, more than 600 women and a handful of men have the same occupation. This is too much for a lagoon, which does not provide sufficient resources anymore. The main reason for this massive craze for an activity that is renowned for being difficult and not too profitable, results from the “bad weather allowances” offered by the State. Actually, these compensations, paid for those days when the weather conditions do not allow fishing, have encouraged many young women to start up this particular activity.

Denise’s life is closely linked to the rhythm of the tides. She works for 6 to 7 days, when the spring tides discover the lagoon, then, she waits for one week till the next ones. She leaves in a fishing boat at dawn to meet the shallow zones of the lagoonWearing a straw hat, equipped with an iron lance and rubber boots, she travels through the lagoon decisively, bent on hunting down the octopuses. Nothing seems to stop her, she imperturbably strides over kilometers of coral reefs: venturing out on the slippery rock or the sharpened coral, gets stuck in the sand and silt, paddles in shallow waters or progresses slowly when the water reaches her waist. Hours have elapsed since, and the octopuses, well hidden, seemingly, do not want to come out. Only a trained eye can traced them out.  Eyes rooted on each centimeter of the lagoon, Denise is trying to locate the faintest hint that will put her on the right track to the octopus' den: leftovers of shells, a crab’s carapace, a cavity, or a suspicious movement. It is a known fact that the octopus is a meticulous animal; it often gets rid of its meal leftovers outside its hideaway. The biggest mistake of all! It is precisely these last remnants, cast outside its lair, that often betray the sea animal. Once flushed out of cover, the octopus, coiled up in its spot, is pierced through, finished off and pulled on a rope. A battle, which sometimes leaves some souvenirs behind: bites or wounds on the skin due to the suckers. But, other dangers lie in wait for Denise, who needs to be really careful so as not to walk on a sea urchin or on a dangerous stonefish whose sting is deadly. And, not forgetting the electric ray, which release a powerful electric shock at the least contact or still, the moray eel that can inflict serious bites if threatened.

This hide-and-seek game in the lagoon brings about many consequences. By constantly trampling the coral underfoot in search of their booty, the women generate a genuine ecological disaster, spread on many kilometers. The destroyed coral does not offer shelter anymore to the octopuses, which migrate towards other better-conditioned territories. The women follow suit, destroying and ruining yet another part of this beautiful lagoon, which is as such deprived of its coral finery little by little. The government is conscious of the colossal impact of the activity on the ecological balance and is considering the simple and complete ban of this occupation. However, other viable alternatives need to be found out beforehand for these fisherwomen.

It is high time for Denise to go back to the shore before the sea starts to claim its rights. She is coming back empty-handed after having roamed the lagoon for more than 4 hours, in vain.  Exhausted, she owns up to me that this is not the first time, and most probably not the last time either. The day before, when I met her returning back to the shore, I noticed that she had captured two octopuses and harpooned one fine fish. Today, luck is not on her sister’s side as well; she’s bringing in a poor booty: a baby octopus, weighing no more than half a pound.  Even small, the octopus’ chance of survival is nonexistent...

Some women, who had ventured out closer to the reefs, where the coral is still intact, are bringing back 3 or 4 trophies. There’s much commotion on the beach: they are comparing their catch, recounting their misadventures, cursing the bad luck that continued to prevail. A friendly atmosphere lingered on, without any rivalry or tension. The day’s catch will be washed in seawater and weighed on a scale laid down on the beach itself. After some quick calculations on the sand, the transaction is finalized. The octopuses will be immediately sold to buyers who will take care of drying them, cutting them up and preparing them so as to resell them at the local market or to export them to Mauritius.

I caught up with Denise, quite aloof on the beach. Nostalgic, she still remembers the catch that she used to make some ten years ago and spiteful, compares it with what she reaps nowadays. It is clear that the octopus is becoming scarce and is decreasing in size. Denise knows that the resources will continue to decline until and unless actions will be undertaken to deter fishing in reproduction periods and the number of fisherwomen will have decreased... Denise is right: “Ourite Misère” (“Octopuses are indeed getting rare”)!

Text and photos: © Fabrice Bettex / Mysterra




 
Rodrigues Island picture - Octopus fisherwoman

Rodrigues Island picture - Octopus fisherwoman

Rodrigues Island picture - Octopus fisherwoman

Rodrigues Island picture - Octopus fisherwoman

Rodrigues Island picture - Octopus fisherwoman

Rodrigues Island picture - Octopus fisherwoman

Rodrigues Island picture - Octopus fisherman

Rodrigues Island picture - Octopus fisherman

Rodrigues Island picture - Octopus

Rodrigues Island picture - Octopus fisherwoman

Rodrigues Island picture - Octopus fisherwoman

Rodrigues Island picture - Octopus fisherwoman

Rodrigues Island picture - Octopus

Rodrigues Island picture - Octopus fisherwoman

Rodrigues Island picture - Octopus fisherwoman

Rodrigues Island picture - Octopus fisherwoman
       
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