The Vezo is the term the semi-nomadic coastal people of southern Madagascar use to refer to people that have become accustomed to live from sea fishing. “Vezo” literally means the people who fish, but also has been known to mean ‘to struggle with the sea’.
They currently populate most of the littoral zone along Madagascar’s west coast between Toliara and Mahajanga.
The Vezo speak a dialect of the Malagasy language, which is a branch of the Malayo-polynesian language group derived from the Barito languages, spoken in southern Borneo.
They do not identify with a particular Malagasy ethnic group but instead with their way of life.
Because of their semi-nomadic marine migrations, their population is difficult to determine and has been estimated by counting the dugout canoes called pirogues (lakanas in Malagasy language) around Madagascar.
Fishermen make use of mangroves for timber, wood, and fishing.
The fishers participate in an artisanal fishery reliant on pirogues (canoes, made by hollowing out a large log) powered by sail and paddle, and most fishing occurs 5 km or less from shore.
Men predominantly fish with line, nets, and spears. Women glean the reef flats for invertebrates including octopus and sea cucumbers.
Fish sales, processing and trade supplement local income, as does tourism and local commerce.
The Vezo traditionally traded with the neighbouring agro-foresters, the Masikoro.
The Vezo also trade with the Mikea, exchanging fish and for honey and tubers.
Off the coast of Madagascar, overfishing has become a major issue. The Vezo rely entirely on fishing, who for the past 2,000 years have been navigating the stretch of the Indian Ocean that separates Madagascar from the African continent in hand-carved pirogues. Increasingly, commercial boats, mostly from Asia and Europe, are fishing those same waters. Thus, it is difficult for the traditional fishermen to compete in the market. In response, many Vezo have resorted to fishing hundreds of miles offshore, spending six to nine months a year in rough and dangerous waters in search of sharks and sea cucumbers, both in high demand in Asian seafood markets. Some bring their families and all their possessions and set up camp on sandbars far from civilization.