COVID underscores the urgency of holistic community-based approaches to conservation

This article was first published as a commentary on Mongabay on April 22nd 2020

Impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on vulnerable communities in the Global South go far beyond the looming public health emergency.  The broader economic and environmental ramifications are of profound importance to biodiversity conservation. How the conservation movement responds will determine our relevance and credibility in the eyes of many communities who depend on nature for their survival.

The coronavirus pandemic will disproportionately affect the poor.  And for those who face the brunt of other global crises, Covid-19 is yet another tragedy.  Isolated rural communities struggling with biodiversity loss already have the odds stacked against them.  This new emergency exposes and intensifies the horrors of poverty and environmental collapse, and provides a forewarning of the kinds of social and economic shocks that will come with climate breakdown.  Already tropical cyclones that would previously have captured headlines are going unheard amidst the pandemic’s global upheaval.

For two decades my organization has worked alongside coastal communities and partner organizations to rebuild tropical fisheries in low income countries and emerging economies. We have navigated turbulent times before, from catastrophic storms and infectious disease outbreaks to prolonged political unrest and conflict, but this crisis is testing our preparedness and ability as never before.

Everywhere we work we are seeing fisheries and seafood markets in turmoil. The supply chains at the foundation of most coastal economies are disrupted and fragmented by restrictions on the movement of people and goods. Tourism − also an economic lifeline for millions − has stopped dead. Disruption on this scale was unthinkable just weeks ago.

Communities who depend on these livelihoods face devastating losses of income, compounded by social isolation and obstructions to the supply of essentials, including food and medicines.  Few poor coastal communities have any economic buffer or social support to ride out this storm.  Women − who account for over one third of the world’s 60 million small-scale fishers, with still more living from fish processing and trading − will be particularly hard hit.

Community aquaculture project in Madagascar. Photo courtesy of Blue Ventures.
Community aquaculture project in Madagascar. Photo Garth Cripps / Blue Ventures.

Coastal fishing villages in low income countries tend to be crowded, with many single-room houses packed tightly together. Houses typically lack running water and toilets. Water must be collected daily from communal wells. Under these conditions, social distancing can be impossible. We often work in contexts where there are simply no hospitals, let alone the medicines and PPE to save lives from the coronavirus. Millions live precariously with no social safety net and rely on fishing to make ends meet. In this perilous situation disruption to livelihoods intensifies communities’ dependence on natural resources to make ends meet, and brings new urgency to our mission.

Our programs focus relentlessly on helping people live more sustainably with the ocean, and to overcome external shocks and pressures.  We do this through practical efforts to improve catches, by diversifying livelihoods to reduce reliance on fishing, and by providing access to basic services such as community healthcare. With field teams living and working alongside under-served communities throughout the coastal tropics, we’re in a front line position to respond to this new challenge.  Along with our partners, we are mobilizing around the world to help buttress locally led conservation efforts against the current crisis, safeguarding food security and livelihoods for coastal populations in this turbulent time.

We’re pooling resources with specialist organizations and government agencies to reach the most remote coastal communities with relief programs. We’re repurposing our logistics, boats, vehicles and teams wherever we can to help local government and community structures prepare for and combat the pandemic. We’re gathering and sharing information between communities and partners to ensure that the voices and needs of marginalized populations do not go unheard. And we’re ensuring our local partners have access to information and resources to help them shape their own responses to protect fisheries and livelihoods.

Blue Ventures Covid-19 response in Madagascar. Photo courtesy pf Blue Ventures.
Blue Ventures COVID-19 response in Madagascar.

Blue Ventures Covid-19 response in Madagascar. Photo courtesy of Blue Ventures.
Blue Ventures COVID-19 response in Madagascar. Photo © Blue Ventures.

Beyond our work on the water, our community health teams have pivoted their operations to deliver a coordinated response to reduce community transmission of the virus, mobilize communities and partners to support the most vulnerable and help strengthen the existing health care systems so that they can cope with the pandemic, while maintaining essential health services.  This sort of public health response is on a different scale to anything we’ve attempted before, aiming to reach nearly 400,000 people in Madagascar alone.

These efforts face the ultimate scrutiny from communities who count on their success, and to whom we are accountable. So we’re learning quickly − if more slowly than we would like − which approaches truly add value when they’re needed most.  This reckoning is forcing us to make big decisions often in the face of huge uncertainty. Inevitably the experience is painful. Like so many organizations ours is being shaken by the immense strategic, financial and operational repercussions.  Yet as we chart our course through the most rapid, momentous and far-reaching transition in human behavior that the world has ever known, we’re seeing new opportunities to refine our approaches.  Our teams are being guided by our core values and “listen, plan, do, review, adapt, share” learning cycle to respond quickly, listening to communities and working holistically.  Whatever the other side of this crisis looks like, we will be more attuned to local needs, and better informed to help communities navigate future climate shocks or market breakdowns.

This Vezo fisherman had just speared an octopus. Behind him, the water is discolored by the the ink the octopus had released to try to protect itself. Photo © Garth Cripps / Blue Ventures.
This Vezo fisherman had just speared an octopus. Behind him, the water is discoloured by the the ink the octopus had released to try to protect itself. Photo © Garth Cripps / Blue Ventures.

Beyond our own efforts, our sector’s collective response to this pandemic will shape and sharpen the conservation movement that emerges from this crisis.  Adaptations borne of today’s turmoil offer glimpses of a reformed conservation movement.  We can only hope it will be better equipped to deliver value to communities and to weather the shocks of the future in pursuit of our collective conservation mission. We will learn anew the critical importance of redressing the imbalance of resources between north and south, and between bureaucracy and field delivery.  And as distant offices struggle to mobilize international experts we will see the imperative of investment in the grassroots infrastructure and local leadership that are so fundamental to durable conservation. On the other side of the pandemic, we will have a precious opportunity to rejuvenate the outdated global apparatus of conservation, pivoting our sector towards the lower carbon efficiency that the future demands.

For conservationists working at the interface of poverty and environmental degradation, the coronavirus tragedy underscores why we must take urgent action to support those dependent on biodiversity for their survival.  The impact we make today could be the most important work of our lives. Never has our mission mattered more.

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Thailand’s small-scale fisheries are the cornerstone of social, economic and nutritional health for the communities living along the majority of the country’s nearly 3,000 kilometre coastline.
In the southernmost Trang province we are supporting communities reliant on nearshore fisheries − in particular for crab, shrimp and squid − in partnership with the Save Andaman Network (SAN).

We’re providing training and tools to aid organisational development, community led fisheries monitoring and management, and building community-owned social enterprises that fund and sustain local conservation efforts.


Since 2016, our work in Timor-Leste has evolved into a dynamic movement supporting community led marine management and coastal livelihood diversification in Asia’s newest country. From our origins on Atauro Island, considered to harbour amongst the highest levels of marine biodiversity on earth, we’re now working with numerous communities on the island and the mainland to ensure that local communities have access to diverse sustainable livelihood options to relieve fishing pressure on critical coral reefs and seagrass ecosystems.

We’re engaging communities in monitoring the relatively unexplored marine biodiversity of Timor-Leste, and managing local marine resources through customary local laws known as Tara Bandu. Alongside our community conservation efforts, we have pioneered Timor-Leste’s first homestay association, which now provides a consistent income from visiting ecotourists and sparked interest in replication by a mainland community. Using homestays as a hub, communities are well placed to host learning exchanges, training events, and act as an outreach platform to engage and inspire communities in fisheries management and livelihood diversification. Exchanges have led to communities of best practice and strengthened associations, and the opportunity to establish a formal network throughout the country.

Our team in Timor-Leste’s capital Dili works closely with government, civil society organisations and NGO partners.


Like its neighbours within the Northern Mozambique Channel marine biodiversity hotspot, Tanzania harbours some of the most diverse marine ecosystems in the Indian Ocean.  These habitats are facing unprecedented challenges from overfishing and climate change.

Our Tanzanian team has worked with communities and local organisations to support locally-led marine conservation since 2016.  Our work has expanded from Zanzibar to mainland regions of Tanga, Lindi and Kilwa where our technicians work with local partners to help communities strengthen co-management systems, working through beach management units (BMUs), Shehia Fishing Committees (SFCs) marine parks and Collaborative Fisheries Management Areas (CFMAs).

Our partners Mwambao Coastal Community Network, and Sea Sense have spearheaded a remarkable acceleration in the uptake of community-based fisheries management and conservation in recent years, notably through the use of short term fisheries closures to catalyse broader community conservation.


With one of Africa’s longest coastlines, Somalia’s diverse marine environment supports enormously productive coastal and offshore fisheries.  Decades of conflict have undermined the country’s capacity for fisheries management, with many foreign industrial vessels fishing with impunity, and little regard for the critical importance of Somalia’s coastal fisheries for local livelihoods and food security. 

A period of relative political and social stability unprecedented in recent decades is now presenting new opportunities to address past challenges, and to realise the considerable opportunities that well-managed coastal fisheries and conservation can offer Somalia. We are forging partnerships with community organisations in Somalia to build their capacity and skills to help coastal communities manage their fisheries for food security, livelihoods and conservation.


The Philippines forms part of the ‘coral triangle’ epicentre of global marine biodiversity, with unparalleled diversity of marine species. Over half of the country’s 107 million people (55.6%) live in rural areas, and approximately three quarters depend on agriculture or fisheries as their primary source of livelihoods.

With our local partner People and the Sea, we are working in the eastern Visayas to support coastal communities to establish locally led marine conservation and fisheries management efforts underpinned by participatory data systems that put evidence in the hands of communities.

Papua New Guinea

The largest country in the Western Pacific Region, Papua New Guinea‘s coral reefs and mangroves are among the most diverse and extensive in the world. Papua New Guinea has a long history of traditional approaches for fisheries management, and huge unmet marine conservation needs.

We have been supporting our local partner Eco Custodian Advocates since 2019 in Milne Bay, notable for its vast mangrove forests and coral reefs. We are now expanding this support to other local organisations in Papua New Guinea, focused on supporting the establishment of customary LMMAs that provide locally relevant approaches to community led fishery management built upon local cultural traditions.


Indonesia comprises almost 17,500 islands stretching across three time zones. This archipelagic nation has the longest coastline − and the largest coastal fisheries resource − of any country on Earth. Ninety five percent of Indonesia’s seafood production comes from small-scale fisheries, which are underpinned by the most biodiverse marine ecosystem on Earth, known as the Coral Triangle.

In Indonesia, Blue Ventures’ partner Yayasan Pesisir Lestari, based in Bali, works with locally-based organisations Forkani, Yayasan LINI, Yapeka, Yayasan Planet Indonesia, Foneb, Komanangi, JARI, Yayasan Tananua Flores, Baileo, AKAR, Japesda, Yayasan Mitra Insani and Yayasan Hutan Biru.

These partners support community-based approaches to coral reef and mangrove conservation at 22 sites across seven provinces. Interventions are customised to each context − the local fisheries, community stakeholders, seafood supply chains, legal frameworks and customary traditions governing fisheries management and conservation.

Since 2019 we have brought these partners together within a peer learning network of Indonesian organisations specialised in supporting community-based marine conservation. The network is based around the shared values of the organisations, including a commitment to promote the rights of traditional fishing communities in conservation. Seventeen of the sites represented in this group are enacting local marine management through customary management regimes and traditions. This group, largely comprising sites in Eastern Indonesia, provides an important opportunity to share learning in traditional marine and fisheries management practices.

In West Kalimantan and East Sumatra we’re supporting mangrove-dependent coastal communities to integrate mangrove fishery and forestry management, alongside activities to develop alternative livelihoods or upgrade existing livelihoods. In North Sulawesi we’re supporting the development of community-owned ecotourism businesses, such as homestays, that diversify local livelihoods and place further value on protected and healthy marine ecosystems. Across our work in Indonesia, where partner communities have an unmet need for healthcare, we’re supporting the integration of health improvement activities into our interventions.

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We continue to work in India with our long term partner the Dakshin Foundation. We are collaborating in three distinct locations; the archipelago of Lakshadweep, coastal regions of Odisha and the Andaman Islands.

Overfishing has led to a reduction in fish catches, challenging the future of many traditional fishing communities.

Our partnership is working to build the capacity of communities to manage coastal fisheries,  and improve the health of fishing communities, for the long-term wellbeing of both the communities and their fishing grounds.


Kenya’s coast supports an extraordinary diversity of tropical marine and coastal habitats.  These  waters are threatened by a proliferation of destructive fishing practices and over-harvesting within the artisanal and commercial fishing sectors.

Our approach in Kenya focuses on strengthening Beach Management Units (BMUs) to improve fisheries management.  Since 2016 our Mombasa-based technical team has provided support, mentoring and assistance to local partners including Pate Marine Community Conservancy (PMCC), Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) and Coastal and Marine Resource Development (COMRED).

These partnerships have seen notable achievements in community led fisheries management and conservation, including training and mentoring BMU leaders in eighteen communities in Kwale and Lamu Counties.


The Comoros islands are located in the northern Mozambique Channel, a region home to the world’s second highest marine biodiversity after the Coral Triangle. This globally important biodiversity underpins coastal livelihoods and food security, but is at risk from climate change and overexploitation of inshore fisheries.

We have maintained a permanent presence supporting locally led marine conservation and fisheries management in Comoros since 2015, providing support to local partners, governmental institutions and communities.

On Anjouan, the second largest and most densely populated island in the Comoros archipelago, we work closely with national NGO Dahari. Our partnership has developed a replicable blueprint for community-based marine management, which has seen the creation of the country’s first locally managed marine areas − including temporary and permanent marine closures − designed to safeguard the coral reef ecosystems underpinning the archipelago’s coastal economy.

This approach, which is expanding rapidly across the Comoros, is also demonstrating the importance of inclusive conservation in empowering women − through local women’s fisheries associations − to play a leading role in fisheries monitoring and decision making.

On neighbouring island of Moheli and the french island of Mayotte, we’re supporting the Moheli National Park and the Mayotte Marine Natural Park with efforts to strengthen community engagement in fisheries management and conservation.


Belize’s marine environment encompasses some of the most important marine ecosystems in the Caribbean Sea, including vast coral reefs, mangrove forests and seagrass ecosystems. We have maintained a permanent presence in Belize since 2010, supporting diverse fisheries and conservation efforts from our base in Sarteneja, Belize’s largest fishing community.  

We work in close partnership with the Belize Fisheries Department, MPA managers, fishing cooperatives and fishers’ associations, and are actively involved in promoting the establishment of a national scale domestic fishery for invasive lionfish.  We’ve worked with coastal stakeholders to develop a national strategy for lionfish management, including launching the National Lionfish Working Group.  

We’ve led a ten year MPA monitoring and evaluation programme in Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve, and provide training in coral reef monitoring methods to six MPA authorities in Belize, including helping establish management targets for Turneffe Atoll Marine Reserve, Belize’s largest MPA. 

Our team supports community-based fisheries and conservation groups across the country to ensure local interests are mainstreamed in the design and implementation of marine conservation and fisheries management, improving the effectiveness of co-management of conservation areas.


Our Mozambican team has worked with communities to develop locally led approaches to fisheries management and marine conservation since 2015.

Our approach is focused on supporting and strengthening local organisations and Community Fisheries Councils (CCPs) to better understand their local fisheries, make informed management decisions to rebuild fisheries, and assess the impact of management actions.  This work is developed in close collaboration with our partners Oikos- Cooperação e Desenvolvimento in Nampula province and African Parks in Inhambane province.

Ongoing security challenges have devastated many coastal communities and emerging marine conservation efforts in several areas of Cabo Delgado, where our work is regrettably now on hold.

As in Madagascar, given extremely high levels of coastal poverty and a pervasive lack of access to basic services, alongside our work in conservation we facilitate partnerships with specialist health providers, through an integrated health-environment approach.


Blue Ventures’ journey began in Madagascar in 2003, and we’ve been supporting communities in marine conservation across the country ever since. We have five regional field programmes along Madagascar’s west coast, as well as regional offices in the towns of Toliara, Morondava and Ambanja.  Our national headquarters is located in the capital Antananarivo.

Across all these sites we support communities with the establishment of locally managed marine areas (LMMAs), and work with government partners to secure national recognition for community conservation initiatives.  First developed in Madagascar by Blue Ventures in 2006, the LMMA concept has since been replicated by communities at hundreds of sites over thousands of kilometres of coastline, now covering almost one fifth of Madagascar’s inshore seabed.  Our research in Madagascar has demonstrated globally important evidence of the benefits of LMMAs to fisheries and conservation.

Our work focuses on strengthening community institutions in marine management and governance, and pioneering new approaches to catalyse community engagement in ocean conservation.  These innovations have included establishing the world’s first community-based sea cucumber farms and the country’s first mangrove blue carbon project.

At the national level, we have incubated the MIHARI network, now an independent civil society platform that brings together 219 LMMA sites across the country and 25 supporting conservation partner organisations.  Our policy team is also actively involved in advocating for more robust legislation to safeguard the rights and interests of fishing communities, and to remove destructive industrial fishing from coastal waters.

Given the lack of basic services in remote coastal regions in Madagascar, we also help communities access basic healthcare through training and supporting women to serve as community health workers. We do not replace government health systems, but work to strengthen existing structures in close collaboration with government health actors and specialist NGOs.  We also incubate Madagascar’s national health-environment network, which brings together 40 partner organisations to address the health needs of communities living in areas of conservation importance across the country.