RODRIGUES, Mauritius (Reuters) - Wading through water up to her thighs, Marie-Claire Louis pauses and, one hand clutching a spear, studies the seaweed-covered rocks below her.
Then she sinks both hands under the waves. She brings them up again, grappling with a large pink-grey octopus, her prey’s dripping arms writhing and winding themselves around her wrists.
“The octopus is beautiful,” the 34-year-old mother-of-four says. “But it is our food, so we have to kill it.”
On the tiny, hilly island of Rodrigues, some 560 km (350 miles) northeast of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, the main employment opportunities are farming, tourism and fishing.
Octopus fishing requires only a pair of tough-soled shoes, a spear and a keen eye to spot the eight-armed creatures which camouflage themselves with ease.
Most octopus hunters are women, who traditionally earned extra income while their husbands were fishing on boats.
“It can poke one eye out of its den, or both, change color or even its shape,” Louis says, with clear admiration for her prey. “I feel sad when I kill an octopus.”
As she scans the seafloor, the fisherwoman -- who learnt her trade from her mother some 22 years ago -- drags behind her two octopuses threaded on a fishing line, buoyed by a blue float.
The octopus take a long time to die. Back on Rodrigues’ volcanic beach, she turns their heads inside out and washes out the ink, all the time chatting with other fisherwomen.
It is a hard life for Louis and her friends. Most octopus fisherwomen earn less than a dollar a day, one survey found, and many have no other income to support their families. And the stock of octopus is falling.
Louis’ husband Clarel sometimes gets work on the big fishing boats. But to find those jobs he has to travel to the Mauritian mainland, and he has not had any offers for a year now.
Meanwhile, he helps his wife with her hunting and enjoys her octopus curry -- cooked over a smoking woodfire with onions, tomatoes and spices and washed down with rum.
Their way of life is in serious decline. Octopus catch estimates fell by more than 60 percent to 285 tonnes in 2004 from 775 tonnes in 1994, according to official estimates.
The octopus -- whose sex can be learned by looking at the third arm on its right -- produces around 1,000 eggs but gets just one chance to do so before dying a month or so later, aged about one year.
The male octopus has a thicker tentacle, which he uses to insert sperm into the female at arm’s length: some female octopuses have been seen eating their mates after reproduction. Most females die after the eggs have hatched.
“This rapid growth and production of a lot of young means they are very vulnerable to overfishing,” said Emily Hardman, a marine conservationist with SHOALS Rodrigues, a non-governmental organization.
“But if they are protected, we hope they would be able to recover fairly quickly,” she told Reuters. In nearby Madagascar, people saw large increases in octopus numbers just months after introducing fishing bans in some areas.
But unable to afford school for all her children and now teaching one of her daughters to fish, Louis says she does not have time to wait for the octopus stock to recover.
A year ago, she started selling elaborate and colorful cushion covers, stitched while sitting in the shade of her concrete home as goats munched the yellowing grass outside.
Her handicrafts earn her about 600 rupees ($19) a month, more than the 350 rupees she makes from selling octopus.
“We used to live off the octopus in the sea, but now we have nothing,” says another fisherwoman, Violette Ravina, wearing a straw hat and cloth round her face to guard against the sun.
“The poverty is hard, hard, hard.”
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