Most marine conservation efforts fail. Declaring areas of ocean permanently off-limits to fishing all too often puts conservation at loggerheads with the needs of coastal communities, disenfranchising the people who depend on fisheries for their livelihoods. For many of the 1.4 billion people who live around our tropical coasts, forgoing fishing in protected areas represents too severe an economic sacrifice and too significant an opportunity cost.
Blue Ventures works with coastal communities to overcome this conservation commitment conundrum. We do this by introducing short-term closures of fishing grounds to boost catches, thus sparking and building enduring support for more ambitious management efforts that are led by communities, for communities. By returning meaningful economic benefits in timeframes that work for traditional fishers, our model inspires local leadership to protect marine biodiversity and improve food security.
Our journey to catalyse community conservation began more than a decade ago, in a remote corner of southwest Madagascar. Coastal communities in the region were concerned about the decline of their fisheries, so we supported one village to close a small part of their octopus fishing area for a few months, to see whether this might boost productivity.
When the fishing ground reopened, communities saw dramatic increases in both octopus landings and fisher incomes. As news of this remarkable fishery boom spread, neighbouring communities started adopting this approach. Crucially, this sparked interest in more ambitious coastal management efforts, leading to the creation of the country’s first locally managed marine area (LMMA), governed by a small network of fishing villages.
This use of short-term fishing ground closures as a point of entry for conservation has since gone viral along hundreds of kilometres of Madagascar’s coastline, inspiring a grassroots marine management movement that has seen 65 LMMAs established to date, covering 11% of the island’s seabed.
Our research has shown that effectively managed short-term closures of octopus fishing grounds boost catches, increase fisher incomes, and build community engagement in broader marine management efforts. We have analysed data from eight years of closures and found that octopus landings increased by more than 700% in the month following the lifting of a closure, boosting the catch per fisher per day by almost 90% over the same period. In the month after reopening, village-level incomes more than doubled, while communities experienced no significant loss of earnings during the closure period (Oliver et al, 2015).
Our model has proven to be a transformative tool for engaging communities in conservation in Madagascar and beyond. It has informed new fisheries policy, and been applied to other fisheries (most recently mangrove crab and spiny lobster). The approach has also been replicated by the neighbouring Mauritian island of Rodrigues (since 2012), and the Tanzanian island of Pemba (since 2015), with other countries and communities in preparation.
The grassroots movement inspired by this model has led to unprecedented national level support for marine conservation in Madagascar, with the President recently committing to triple the coverage of the country’s marine protected areas, with a special emphasis on local governance.
The unprecedented challenges facing small-scale fisheries and marine biodiversity are not limited to Madagascar and the Western Indian Ocean. Almost 1.4 billion people, mostly in developing countries, live in communities bordering tropical seas. This coastal population is expected to grow by 45% to 1.95 billion people by 2050. Developing nations are home to at least 97% of the world’s fishers. These fisheries are a lifeline for families and economies, and underpin food security for entire nations.
So far our work has impacted the lives of more than 150,000 coastal people, but this is just the beginning. In collaboration with our many partners, our goal is to engage three million people in tropical coastal communities with this model by 2020. We believe that this is the scale required to drive systemic change, by creating a new paradigm in which marine conservation works for – rather than against – fishing communities.