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Octopus’s garden: A TED Fellow with a radical approach to saving fisheries

Eco-entrepreneur Alasdair Harris is passionate about conserving marine biodiversity, and he’s doing it in unusual ways. While most marine conservationists focus on what’s in the water, Harris’ company Blue Ventures works with people in poverty-stricken coastal communities to engage them in rebuilding tropical fisheries and in the process of protecting both their ecosystems and livelihoods. The company’s approach: eco-tourism.

We spoke to Harris about why humanity’s marine conservation efforts to date haven’t worked — and his vision to change that.

How did Blue Ventures get started?

I was studying zoology in 2000, learning about the enormous threats that were wreaking havoc on the world’s coral reefs, which are the rainforests of the ocean. I was already a keen scuba diver, and this got me asking myself: how on Earth can an undergraduate student in Scotland do something meaningful to help tackle the mass extinction that’s taking place beneath the waves?

I set to work raising money to take a group of fellow students to the Indian Ocean to learn more about what was happening, and contribute in some small way to studying these unprecedented changes. My initial focus was on coral reefs in Madagascar, because this part of the Indian Ocean is one of those regions where we just didn’t know what’s there — there’s a huge gap in the literature. Sadly, this is true for many places; we understand tragically little about so much of our oceans, and marine biodiversity is being lost before we even know it exists.

This isn’t just a tragedy for nature. It’s also a critical issue for many of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people. Almost 1-and-a-half billion of us live around our tropical coasts. Hundreds of millions of these people depend on fishing for survival. Our planet’s so-called small-scale fisheries are anything but small — they’re a lifeline underpinning cultures, food security and livelihoods. So tropical marine conservation isn’t just about conserving marine wilderness to satisfy the curiosity of biologists. It’s a human issue of enormous global importance, at the intersection of food security, conservation, and development. It’s an issue on the front line of climate change.

That first trip was an old-fashioned expedition, funded by Edinburgh University and the Royal Geographical Society, among others. Our goal then was simply — perhaps naively — to put these reefs on the map. But it quickly became apparent that we couldn’t hope to change anything simply by carrying out research. The money was spent and we put together some species lists, but we didn’t achieve anything practical in terms of helping either the reefs or the people that depended on them. The only real winners were those of us getting to dive in these fabulous seas.

This troubled me — it was clear that conservation was about much more than simply indulging a scientific interest in these extraordinary underwater ecosystems. Conservation today is about people, markets and behavioral change. And making change happen requires a totally different approach to simply publishing papers and hoping someone might read them: it means listening to what communities need, developing a deep understanding of local issues — and all that requires a permanent presence and commitment — plus funding for the long haul.

After that first trip, I decided to raise the bar. Each summer for over the next two years, our team went back to the Indian Ocean — to Madagascar and the adjacent republics of Comoros and Tanzania. We raised money during the year as students, running marathons and shaking buckets in the streets of Edinburgh and Oxford.

Madagascar was then recovering from political turmoil following disputed elections in 2002, and there was an overwhelming need to build capacity in the environmental sector. This provided the impetus for me to bite the bullet. It was really just saying, “I’m setting up an organization that will continue the work we’ve started.” That was Blue Ventures. It kicked off the day I left university.

The reef octopus is a cash crop for tens of thousands of subsistence fishers in the Indian Ocean, providing a foot in the door for Blue Ventures' "community catalyst" approach to conservation. Photo: Garth Cripps
The reef octopus is a cash crop for tens of thousands of subsistence fishers in the Indian Ocean. Blue Ventures looks to get them invested in the conservation process. Photo: Garth Cripps
Why did you decide to set up a tourism business to fund conservation programs, rather than just start a conservation organization?

Having the idea was one thing, but finding the means to finance the vision was a whole new challenge. No donor or philanthropic foundation in their right mind would give a 23-year-old support for this kind of vision. So by default I had to look at entrepreneurship. And the solution was there all along. Those expeditions I’d been running were incredible opportunities for people from all walks of life to learn about the ocean, to experience new cultures and the enormous challenges of making conservation work on the ground. We had a business opportunity in our hands. So Blue Ventures Expeditions went live with £500 from my student overdraft, and the business was born.

Since then, we’ve welcomed hundreds of volunteers every year to our field programs around the world. These volunteers contribute to the running costs of our conservation work. They learn to dive with us, play a key role collecting data underwater and participate in our research and outreach work. Crucially, they also provide year-round financial sustainability to the organization, helping keep the lights on as we support a global team of more than 100 conservationists.

Any profits we make get reinvested in the charity, strengthening our conservation programs. It’s this social business that’s provided the catalyst for all our conservation work. We’ve expanded our reach beyond Madagascar — to Malaysia, Fiji and Belize — and we’re launching new country programs later this year.

How does the tourism enterprise work?

We accept volunteers who want to come and learn about conservation. Say you want a career break, or you want to learn to scuba dive for six weeks, or reboot your career in conservation or development. We even get families looking for a new experience. Each expedition lasts six weeks and involves a series of intensive training programs in diving, marine science and underwater surveying. You then live and work alongside our conservation staff, getting hands-on experience of the issues that we confront on a daily basis, in incredibly remote settings.

Another great thing is the network Blue Ventures has formed. We have an inspiring community of more than 2,000 alumni around the world, all of whom have lived and worked with us for extended periods of time and are very close to the spirit and culture of the enterprise.

Your view of marine conservation today must have been very different 11 years ago.

Absolutely. By approaching conservation as an entrepreneur, the challenges and limitations of “conventional” funding models are made very apparent to us. Marine reserves — areas of ocean protected from fishing, within which ecosystems can recover and help rebuild and replenish fisheries — are the end goal for any marine conservationist. They’re our currency. And given the threats our seas are facing — from overfishing and pollution to climate change — science tells us that we need to be setting aside about 30% of our seas within these marine reserves if we’re to have any hope of safeguarding our seas from the soaring stresses that humankind is unleashing.

But we have some serious problems in reaching that 30% target. Firstly, these conservation zones are typically funded by donors or governments in short-term project cycles, with no real hope of attaining financial sustainability for the protected area. Compounding this is the issue of scale: despite tireless efforts and commitment from thousands of conservationists and marine park managers working for this cause from the Arctic to the Southern Ocean, at best we’re fully protecting barely 1% of our seas. Worse still, the funding available for conservation isn’t growing in any significant way.

For Madagascar's semi-nomadic Vezo communities, fishing is more than a job. On the island's Mozambique Channel coast, fishing is the basis of Vezo cultural identity. Photo: Garth Cripps
For Madagascar’s semi-nomadic Vezo communities, fishing is more than a job. On the island’s Mozambique Channel coast, fishing is the basis of Vezo cultural identity. Photo: Garth Cripps
Secondly, these marine reserves are often promoted from the top down, typically by governments or outside organizations with little consultation with the people that use the sea. Conservation is often “imposed” at the expense of the livelihoods of people who might depend on those same fishing grounds for their survival. So reserves get created and alienate the very people who should be championing their existence. The result is that fishermen and women who have the greatest interest in conservation fight against it. Of course, I’m painting a simplistic picture here, but we have a major problem on our hands: unless we find ways to rally communities behind marine protection, we have no hope of making ocean conservation truly effective or sustainable.

But turn this paradox on its head, and we can also see this as an opportunity. If we can identify ways to deliver meaningful benefits from conservation, then we can mobilize fishing communities — who generally understand the ocean far more deeply than us scientists — to support our efforts to protect that 30%. If we can make conservation work for people, we can rally a global constituency of ambassadors supporting the protection of our seas.

We need to move quickly to identify these incentives if we’re to have any hope of reversing current trends of biodiversity loss. That, in a nutshell, is Blue Ventures’ raison d’ȇtre: we’re seeking those catalysts, and innovating ways to help build grassroots buy-in to marine conservation.

In order to do that, you’ve developed a variety of conservation models on top of your tourism enterprise. Can you tell us about a few?

We focus on ways to help communities manage coastal fisheries to generate real benefits in time frames that work for people. The time frame issue is critical, because an East African fishing village struggling with severe poverty and collapsing fisheries can’t always bear any interruption to fishing. If I’m struggling to find fish to feed my family from one day to the next, a five-year wait for recovery is not something I can afford to consider. Yet this short-term sacrifice is exactly what’s required for fish stocks to recover in a typical marine reserve.

Our earliest work started with an unlikely eight-legged ally — the octopus. It just so happens that in many parts of the Indian Ocean, communities depend heavily on fishing octopi. They are often sold locally to collectors who sell on to international exporters, connecting — for example — women in rural Madagascar to lucrative seafood markets in Italy. Octopi live fast — very fast — and die young, so they are a prime candidate for temporary closure to allow stocks to recover. Reef octopus in Madagascar increase in size exponentially through their 18-month lives: an octopus weighing a few hundred grams today might weigh a few kilograms two or three months from now. So if I’m paid per kilo for what I catch, that’s a strong incentive for me to leave that octopus on the reef for a few months.

So ten years ago, we piloted a temporary closure of a local octopus fishing ground in Madagascar. The 200-hectare site was closed for six months, during which the community continued to fish at other sites. When the fishing ground reopened, people landed octopi larger than anything most had seen before! People talk. Soon neighbors were replicating this model. In a decade, it’s gone viral along hundreds of kilometers of coastline. The idea has crossed borders, inspiring new fishing policy. It has been adapted to other fisheries — most recently crabs and lobsters — in other ecosystems.

By making conservation work for people, Blue Ventures works to mobilize fishing communities to support marine protection. Photo: Garth Cripps
By making conservation work for people, Blue Ventures works to mobilize fishing communities to support marine protection. Photo: Garth Cripps
Most astonishing to us is that these same communities are now interested in much more ambitious conservation interventions — including marine reserves. This would have been unimaginable a decade ago. It’s growing every year — we’re helping communities from countries all over this region share their experiences to learn about the benefits of conservation — learning from fellow fishermen who can empathize with their needs, rather than from outside ecologists like me.

We liken our programs to labs, within which we’re constantly looking for new ways to provide that foot in the door for conservation. For example, we’re helping people diversify economically by establishing aquaculture farms — growing sea cucumbers and seaweed for export to other markets. We’re looking into the feasibility of creating new incentives through carbon markets to help communities protect mangrove forests — critical coastal ecosystems that are being lost faster than any other forest type on Earth. And we’re exploring eco-labeling schemes to create market incentives for sustainability in small-scale African fisheries. We also do work in reproductive health.

How is reproductive health related to marine conservation?

They may seem miles apart at first glance, but in reality they’re intimately linked. When we started working with communities in southwest Madagascar on fisheries management, they challenged us to appreciate the ways that human and ecosystem health are intertwined. Often, conservation groups are the only organizations working in such remote areas — that’s why there’s biodiversity left. But with this isolation, there are often also severe unmet community health needs.

Our partner communities thought that fish stocks would collapse without improved access to family planning, and we saw that we were ideally positioned to address this need. So we responded, and supported local women to provide reproductive health education and services in their villages.

Give women the ability to choose the number and spacing of their births, and everything changes. Since gaining access to family planning, women are becoming more and more involved in fisheries management and sea cucumber farming. The conservation benefits of enabling couples to achieve their desired family size are also huge — our reproductive health services are estimated to have averted more than 1,000 unintended pregnancies to date. Not only does this reduce pressure on coastal resources, it also means couples can invest more in the education of each of their children. It means a wider variety of future livelihood opportunities for them.

All this must take a lot of manpower. How are you organized?

Being a locally embedded business is key to our work. We manage our different country programs from our central office in London, but the majority of our staff is based in our partner villages. We have about 75 staff members in Madagascar — where we have the biggest operation — living across eight or nine villages. These teams serve dozens of villages around each hub.

We base our conservation staff in-country so they become a part of the communities they’re working to serve. This is key: because we live and work in villages, we develop strong community relationships. We are able to listen to people and find out what their challenges are. We don’t fly people in just to advise. This allows us to come up with our creative — sometimes unusual — interventions.

Vezo children on fishing beach within Velondriake, Madagascar's first locally managed marine protected area. Photo: Garth Cripps
Vezo children on a fishing beach in Velondriake, Madagascar’s first locally managed marine protected area. Photo: Garth Cripps
How does fisheries management in a place like Madagascar compare to the UK’s?

What we’ve witnessed in places like Madagascar is nothing short of a local marine conservation revolution; being led by some of the poorest communities on Earth, at a pace and scale that are unprecedented in the Indian Ocean. More than 10 percent of Madagascar’s seabed is now under management by local communities, and the president recently committed to more than triple the country’s marine protected areas.

Contrast this with the situation in my home country, which is one of the richest on Earth. In the UK, my government made a commitment to create a comprehensive network of marine protected areas as a means of rebuilding our seas, after two centuries of industrial overfishing literally pulverised our seabeds and stripped our waters of the prolific fisheries that once supported thriving coastal economies.

Five years after the British marine act came into force, governmental cowardice gave in to industry lobbying against marine protection. Not one of the 127 proposed marine conservation zones has received any actual protection. That’s how little regard we have for our seas, and the communities that depend on them. In the UK, our government consistently disregards the interests of our largely sustainable small-scale fleet in favor of satisfying the commercial greed of destructive industrial fleets. The great irony here is that these same fishing industry bodies fighting against conservation stand to benefit the most from the protection of our seas and the recovery of life beneath the waves.

Does your work attract controversy from the scientific “establishment?”

It’s incredibly important that we remain open to scrutiny from our scientific colleagues, since we still have so much to learn. For example, fisheries scientists might be concerned that the method of temporary closures damages the resource, or that it has a negative impact on the supply chain. Conservationists might question whether the surge in fishing effort after one of these closures is reopened will have a negative impact on that stock, or on other species. So we evaluate everything we’re doing rigorously. We have a lot of scientists on our team — everything has to be thoroughly tested and, wherever possible, published. We have no problem opening our data books to new partners. Validation is a key part of taking our work to scale.

What is your ultimate message?

My message is: find a way to make conservation work for people, and it will run with itself. Any other model is not going to work at the scale we need. What we’re trying to achieve at Blue Ventures is to demonstrate that conservation, when it makes sense to people, can achieve a far greater scale than anyone’s ever imagined — and in the process fund itself. Given the enormous threats we’re facing today, we’re delusional if we think we’re going to be able to safeguard our seas with the existing pot of money available. We need a radically new approach to the way we’re engaging people in protecting our natural environment.

I’d love to see our approach of promoting integration across conservation, health and development continue to grow. I want to get to the point that when someone says, “I’m a conservationist,” no one assumes they’re a biologist. He or she could just as well be a journalist, an economist, a teacher, a policy expert, a lawyer, a midwife, or a human rights activist.

Perhaps Blue Ventures’ most significant contribution to conservation has been in demonstrating that integrative, market-based entrepreneurial approaches to conservation are not just highly effective — they’re essential.

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