photo via Garth Cripps

Community-based Conservation in Madagascar

Blue Ventures is developing a sustainable fishing approach that benefits the marine environment and the people who rely on it for their livelihoods.

Madagascar is one of the world’s most critical biodiversity hotspots. Along the coastal areas of the country, much of the Malagasy population relies on fishing to combat the regional difficulties of food insecurity. But destructive overfishing consistently threatens the livelihood of the very communities that count on marine resources for income and food security. This tremendous dependence on the sea has wrought extraordinary levels of environmental degradation.

What we’re trying to do is anchor marine conservation in fisheries markets – which are everywhere. Our mission is rebuilding fisheries in coastal communities through incentive-based models.

Alasdair Harris, Blue Ventures

In the midst of a conservation crisis deeply intertwined with poverty, Blue Ventures, an innovative U.K.-based conservation organization, believes the lack of meaningful incentives to engage communities in marine management is the root cause of the breakdown of marine life. “Fishermen and fisherwomen are so often alienated from the conservation process when, in actuality, they should be our most vocal and powerful advocates for the work we are trying to achieve,” said the executive director of Blue Ventures, Dr. Alasdair Harris.

Aiming to alter the trajectory of declining fisheries, Blue Ventures set out in 2003 to demonstrate to local fishing communities that the more stress a coral reef system sustains, the more likely it is to collapse – and their livelihoods will be lost with it. In order to convince fishers to change their ways, they had to demonstrate that marine protection would provide the community with the food security and livelihoods they required.

In response, the Blue Ventures team developed a sustainable fisheries management approach focused on the octopus fishery, a primary cash crop for Madagascar. They proposed that the community institute temporary bans on catching octopus. It is one of the fastest growing marine species, so even short-term fishing bans in degraded reef areas allow populations to recover, ultimately resulting in bigger catches and more money for fishers in as little as two months. With this new approach in place, on average, fishers today catch nearly twice as much octopus in the month following a closure, more than compensating for the avoided hunting.

“All too often, conservationists go into an area and focus just on a species of ecological importance. But in places like Madagascar, we don’t have the luxury of waiting years to convince communities that biodiversity preservation is necessary,” said Harris. “In order to demonstrate the value of conservation to the communities' livelihoods, we had to select fisheries species that would be responsive to management in a realistic time horizon of just a few months. Focusing on octopus made good sense since their rapid growth and reproduction would result in an improved harvest over the short time frame of the temporary closures.”

The success of Blue Ventures’ projects in southwestern Madagascar has validated its market-based model in striking fashion. “Before, there were lots of fish and octopus, and then there was not,” said Fredo, a long-time fisherman in Andavadoaka, Madagascar. “When Blue Ventures started here, the stocks in the sea began to increase. Without the closure area, our descendants would not have anything, but with the closures, healthy stocks will be passed to future generations.”

Harris describes the outcomes from the Malagasy fishers’ rapid support. “This is the world’s first community-based fisheries management system whereby the costs are covered by the increased profits flowing from temporary closures,” he said. “We’ve pioneered a tremendously exciting approach with enormous potential for scaling up to include many additional communities and other fisheries.”

This developing model for financing marine conservation has caught on. Now replicated hundreds of times in the region, Blue Ventures’ success in Madagascar can offer a blueprint for other communities throughout the Indian Ocean and, eventually perhaps, around the world.

via Garth Cripps

“If we can succeed in implementing these win-wins in which communities, livelihoods and conservation go hand in hand with the needs of fishers at the fore, we believe we can find a way of mobilizing the hundreds of millions of people that work in and around fishing to engage with us in conservation rather than to see our movement as a threat,” said Harris of the Blue Ventures mission.

“We are really all about trying to find ways to make conservation pay for itself and, in doing so, help bring people out of poverty.”

As of now, Blue Ventures estimates its fisheries management has positively affected nearly 100,000 people. As the program expands and governments consider adopting the approach, Harris foresees impacting as many as five million people across the Indian Ocean within the next five years.

“Blue Ventures is an example of an ideal partner for us,” said Dr. Bob Cook, Director of the Trust’s Conservation Program. “They share our commitment to protecting irreplaceable biodiverse hotspots. And they do so from the vantage point of communities that live in those areas – which is absolutely critical to achieve sustainable success.”

“We continue to work with the Helmsley Charitable Trust, looking at issues of resource sustainability, food security and health as they impact conservation goals in the communities in which we work," said Harris. "It is refreshing to work with a leader in the philanthropy space that is so committed to partnering in forward-thinking yet practical strategies that we see as essential for creating models that can be taken to scale.