The sun glistens on waves lapping against wooden fishing boats as their sails ripple in the breeze coming off the Indian Ocean.
Nearby a young man with a diving mask bobs below the water’s surface armed with a stick to lure his catch into a net while also trying to snare fish on a nylon line.
In Anakao, a traditional fishing community in southwest Madagascar, the community known as Vezo – which means “rowing strength” – has fished for generations.
But the arrival last year of six fishing trawlers off the coast, and a subsequent deal between a local private body that promotes Madagascan businesses and Chinese investors, have stirred anger in recent months, at a time when the country is going to the polls in presidential elections.
“If this carries on, we’ll be eating sand,” warned Fulgence, a fisherman in Anakao.
He does not dare venture out when the six Chinese vessels are at sea, claiming that a number of his nets have been cut.
“The Chinese take everything and chuck the little dead fish back into the sea,” complained Marco Randrianjaka, echoing the grievances of many of his fellow seafarers.
“Without the small ones, they won’t be able to reproduce down the line.”
But China’s Mapro South, the company responsible for the six new vessels, denies the claims.
Their nets’ mesh is large enough to allow the smaller fish to escape, said Lifujun Li, a company manager in Toliara, a port town one hour away from Anakao by boat.
Against the backdrop of an already tense situation both locally and nationally due to the presidential poll, a new fisheries deal with Chinese investors has provoked an outcry on the island where malnutrition is widespread.
The deal, which was not publicised, is understood to go much further than the six Chinese-funded trawlers already in operation.
The $2.7-billion agreement includes, among other things, 330 modern, refrigerated vessels of up to 14 metres long being delivered to Madagascan fishermen.
They will “replace the traditional wooden boats”, according to Madagascar’s Development and Business Promotion Agency (AMDP), which negotiated the deal with China’s Taihe consortium.
The ships, supplied to local fishermen free of charge, will help them “increase their production capacity”, according to an AMDP official, who declined to be named.
A proportion of fish caught by those participating in the scheme will be sold locally. The Chinese will buy the “surplus” at a favourable but undisclosed price, said the AMDP official.
* Sign up to News24’s top Africa news in your inbox: SUBSCRIBE TO THE HELLO AFRICA NEWSLETTER
According to him, the deal will promote “local development” in Madagascar – one of the world’s poorest countries, which is also blighted by corruption.
The official blamed the outcry on the fishing community “pre-judging” the project – something they deny.
The 330 new boats will eventually produce 130 000 tonnes of fish annually, according to the AMDP – roughly the equivalent of the country’s entire production in 2016.
“But we already face over-fishing in some regions,” said Rijasoa Fanazava, a fisheries expert at the World Wildlife Fund in Madagascar.
Fanazava believes that tens of thousands of fishermen risk losing their livelihoods if stocks are diminished.
“How will they live?” he said.
A recent round table that brought together the AMDP and 30 affected organisations failed to allay their fears.
“The only impact assessments given by the AMDP have been economic in nature, we haven’t had anything on the environmental and social impacts of the project,” said not-for-profit groups in a joint statement.
The AMDP stresses that the deal provides for an environmental initiative to protect the sustainability of marine life off Madagascar’s coasts.
Campaign groups are “unconvinced” that the deal will truly create economic opportunities for local fishermen and reiterated their opposition to the scheme.
Even Fishing Minister Augustin Andriamananoro has his doubts. He claims he was not even briefed on the deal.
It was signed on the sidelines of a China-Africa cooperation summit in Beijing in September attended by Hery Rajaonarimampianina, just days before his resignation as president to contest the polls.
He was knocked out in the first-round vote last month.
“(The AMDP) can’t sell treasures which aren’t even theirs,” said Andriamananoro.
“The deal isn’t at all legal” and shouldn’t be executed, added the minister, an ally of Andry Rajoelina, who will stand in the December 19 second-round vote against Marc Ravalomanana.
But the AMDP, though reluctant to comment publicly, is adamant the project will go ahead.
“(The deal) is between two private companies from the two countries – it’s not an agreement between states,” insisted the anonymous AMDP official.
The first Chinese-made trawlers are due to be delivered within a year.
But in Anakao, the fishing community fears “unfair competition”.
“We’re already catching less and less,” said Mananaina. “Before, it was more than 20 kilogrammes a day – now just 10.”
“There’s simply not enough fish to feed everyone,” added Fulgence. “So why send them to China?”