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New research: Community conservation means more fish in the sea

New research published this week has found that community-led marine conservation can increase the size of fish populations − a critical objective for conservationists working to protect coral reefs.

The study, published this week in the journal Ocean and Coastal Management, analysed data collected from five community-managed reserves (areas permanently protected from fishing) within the Velondriake Locally Managed Marine Area (LMMA) in southwest Madagascar. 

The reserves were studied over seven years by marine scientists and volunteers from Blue Ventures, and compared with five nearby fished ‘control’ sites. The study aimed to understand whether these reserves could have a positive effect on fish populations on local coral reefs. 

On each reef, the number and length of fish were surveyed by divers annually to estimate the total weight of fish found within a defined area. This is known as biomass, a simple but accurate method of assessing the health of marine ecosystems.  

The reserves began to show improvements after just two years of protection, and after six years biomass rose to almost three times (189%) that of fished reefs. One reserve housed an extraordinary 6.5 times (555%) as much biomass as the fished control site. The research found that community-led marine conservation − the basis of Velondriake’s approach − can deliver compelling improvements to reef health. 

“The idea that protecting areas from fishing can improve fish populations isn’t new −  it’s been around for generations” said Hannah Gilchrist, the study’s lead author. “However very little ecological evidence supports the idea that fishing communities themselves − not governments or outside authorities − can manage the oceans in a way that leads to healthier reefs.” 

Other studies have shown that on average, marine protected areas managed by the state or other outside authorities have just under twice as much biomass as fished sites − far less than the tripling of biomass seen in this research in a community-managed conservation initiative after six years. 

It is particularly notable that this strong conservation result was achieved from a heavily depleted reef condition at the start of the study, in which fish biomass in the study was around half the typical level for western Indian Ocean reefs.

Velondriake Association community meeting | Photo: Garth Cripps

For many fishing communities reserves can be highly contentious, given the perceived risk around withdrawal of fishing access. Velondriake is no different: fishing is the mainstay of food security and income for the LMMA’s 8,000-strong population, employing 87% of the adult population and providing the sole protein source for 99% of household meals.

Communities in the Velondriake LMMA closed five coral reef fishing sites as reserves; the first in 2009 and the most recent in 2014. Reserve size ranges from 120 hectares to 1,000 hectares. Although substantially smaller than the 10,000 hectares recommended for conservation effectiveness, these modestly sized reserves were the largest areas that the communities of Velondriake felt able to set aside without impairing fishing livelihoods. 

Nevertheless, the study showed that the reserves may be too small to benefit some of the fish that are preferred by fishers, and advised the Velondriake Association to expand at least one of the reserves to accommodate important food fish groups such as snapper, emperor and rabbitfish.

The introduction of Velondriake’s permanent reserves followed years of consultation with local communities, and built on communities’ positive experience of temporary closures for octopus fisheries which had produced significant gains to fisheries landings.

The findings have been shared with the Velondriake Association, the local body responsible for managing the 640kmLMMA, and are helping guide discussions for adaptating and expanding conservation measures − including enlarging and establishing new reserves within the LMMA.  

Knowing that reserves are working is really inspiring for the communities in Velondriake. When we shared these results with the Velondriake Association it sparked lots of discussions about what it could mean for reserves in Velondriake. Ideas have included more reserves or bigger reserves that cover multiple habitats (mangrove, seagrass and reef). We are still discussing options with the communities and being led by what they want to do next.” 

Bic Manahira, Ecologist and Dive Instructor, Andavadoaka 

Building on the results of this study, Malagasy marine scientists are continuing these biomass surveys, and building the technical capacity of the Velondriake Association to be able to use data to inform locally led adaptive management in the long-term.

Research is now underway to establish whether ‘spillover’ of fish populations from the protected sites may be helping to replenish nearby fishing sites. 

As the sun rises, fishers prepare their nets for the day’s fishing | Photo: Leah Glass

While there is evidence of improved catches as a result of local fisheries management, until now there has been little peer reviewed research showing biological benefits of community conservation. This new evidence of conservation effectiveness bolsters the cause of Madagascar’s growing community conservation movement.  This movement now includes 178 LMMAs linked via the MIHARI Network, which is working to strengthen government support for community conservation, including through legal recognition of LMMAs and the rights of small-scale fishers.  

In a country where food insecurity affects 65% of the population, and where 70% of people live under the poverty line, effective locally led marine conservation is a critical route to safeguarding the food security and livelihoods of coastal communities.

Global marine conservation targets are not being met, and many government-led marine protected areas are failing to achieve any kind of conservation outcomes. This research provides compelling evidence of the effectiveness of LMMAs, and the critical role they can play in achieving conservation outcomes through a human rights-based approach.


Read the full paper in Ocean and Coastal Management

Discover how community-led conservation leads to more fish in the sea


We are grateful to the many field scientists and fishers who aided in the collection of data for this study in addition to all staff and volunteers involved in Blue Ventures Expeditions programme, without whom the monitoring and our final dataset would not have been possible. Specific thanks go to the Velondriake LMMA Management Association for allowing us to survey inside their CMNTZs, Bic Manahira and James Paul who were involved in counting the majority of the 77,906 fishes included in our analysis, and boat captains through the years whose invaluable knowledge of the southwest coast of Madagascar has kept our colleagues safe in the water.

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Thailand

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.

Timor-Leste

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.

Tanzania

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, marinecultures.org 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.

Somalia

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.

Philippines

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

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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India

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

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.

Comoros

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

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.

Mozambique

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.

Madagascar

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.