Podcast: Dr Alasdair Harris | Blue Ventures

If you’re interested in wildlife conservation and concerned about the loss of species from this little planet of ours, then you’ve probably heard of a term called community-based conservation. But what is it? And how can wildlife conservation provide a pathway to helping people out of poverty? And finally, why have some of the poorest communities in Africa decided to protect nearly a fifth of their coastline as marine protected area? Joining us this week to discuss these matters and more is CEO of Blue Ventures, Alasdair Harris. Blue Ventures is an award-winning marine conservation organisation which rebuilds tropical fisheries with local communities. And just a heads-up guys, in this episode there is some audio interference, we’ve done our best to minimise its impact and apologise for this but without further ado, let’s jump straight into the interview. Enjoy!

NOTE: We’ve spoken with Blue Ventures a number if times at Conservation Careers. Read all the Blue Ventures interviews and more here.

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Audio Transcript

“I have to say, when I left university, I did feel that we’d been sold a bit of a myth about what mattered in conservation and what skills we needed.”

NICK: Hi guys, Nick Askew here from Conservation Careers. If you’re interested in wildlife conservation and concerned about the loss of species from this little planet of ours, then you’ve probably heard of a term called community-based conservation. But what is it? And how can wildlife conservation provide a pathway to helping people out of poverty? And finally, why have some of the poorest communities in Africa decided to protect nearly a fifth of their coastline as marine protected area? Joining us this week to discuss these matters and more is CEO of Blue Ventures, Alasdair Harris. Blue Ventures is an award-winning marine conservation organisation which rebuilds tropical fisheries with local communities. And just a heads-up guys, in this episode there is some audio interference, we’ve done our best to minimise its impact and apologise for this but without further ado, let’s jump straight into the interview. Enjoy!

ALASDAIR: Hi Nick, I’m Alasdair Harris. I’m the Executive Director of Blue Ventures. We’re a marine conservation organisation, we work exclusively in low-income tropical coastal states.

NICK: Cool! So which countries are you active in right now at Blue Ventures?

ALASDAIR: We are very active in Madagascar, which is where we cut our teeth as a conservation organisation, we were founded there in 2003 and over the years we’ve expanded to the neighbouring countries in the region that we know as the Western Indian Ocean, so the coastal states of east Africa and some of the islands and increasingly we’re moving further afield, we’ve opened a programme in Belize, 8 years ago now and we’re now focusing on expansion within the coral triangle region, so the part of the world that’s home to most of the world’s marine biodiversity, most of the world’s fishers facing most of the world’s demands for seafood and challenges to come.

NICK: So you’re very much focused on the marine environment in Blue Ventures?

ALASDAIR: Absolutely, we’re an exclusively marine conservation organisation so we’re incorporated in England, as a charity in England and Wales, and the focus that we have registered with the Charities Commission is tropical marine conservation. And so that means coral reefs, mangroves and seagrasses. And that was because the organisation was borne out of, initially, my interest I guess in coral reefs, my background as a zoologist doing research for my undergrad and then post-graduate degrees on coral reefs. But as an organisation we’ve evolved very quickly into a very anthropocentric group that’s focused on some of the very real, pressing challenges that people face, that communities face, when we talk about conservation. Coastal populations interacting with that biodiversity. Because when we’re talking about tropical marine ecosystems, we are by and large talking about contexts in which most coastal states are low or middle income. And in those contexts we see many challenges beyond classical protected area management, governance, poverty, insecurity, health, education, these are all some of the systemic challenges that we see in most of the countries that we’re operating in, that mean that as a conservationist, often you find it essential to be looking at some of the broader drivers of marine resource decline, rather than simply counting species.

NICK: Do you see conservation as a much more holistic issue than just jumping in to tackle the biodiversity loss, you’re looking at something which also benefits the communities and we’ve heard many times that people get into conservation because they’re interested in the wildlife and then quickly realise it’s an issue of actually working to find wins with people at a community level. Is that something that you guys are kind of working on a hands-on basis?

ALASDAIR: Absolutely. The reality of delivering conservation on the beaches or landing stations or coasts of coastal east Africa or the western Indian Ocean island states or so much of the world’s tropical coastal regions is that it fundamentally needs to deliver meaningful value to the people that depend on the sea and it just so happens that in many of these countries, people depend on the sea almost totally for food security, for income, even for their cultural identity. And so conservation has to be couched in a language and in a message that means something to those people. Delivering a return on, for instance, the investment that communities might need to make in establishing a protected area. Often it means that there are many barriers that conservationists also need to address when embarking on thinking about managing an ecosystem that we might not, for instance, need to address when zoning the Lake District National Park.

The lack of access to education, the lack of access to healthcare, the lack of access to a viable economic alternative to, for instance, fishing. The very short time horizons that communities often have, the very high discount rates, the economic preference for a return on investment in a short time frame. These are particularities of the context in which we work but when we zoom out, we actually see that this condition, this complexity, these challenges are broadly representative of so much of the tropical coastal developing world. Hundreds of millions of people dependent on the productivity, the production, the fisheries production that our tropical oceans are producing, tens of millions of so-called small scale fishers. This is a massive global challenge, it’s no longer one that’s about zoning the protected area in a few islands of biodiversity. In order to reach a meaningful scale as conservationists, we have to develop interventions that resonate with the needs of these communities. And if we can do that, of course, that turns conservation into an incredibly attractive opportunity and a means of helping us scale to the potential size of the market, and the market as they say, is one of enormous global dependence on these very, very vulnerable and threatened ecosystems that are going through a period of extraordinary stress and change as a result of human pressures, and of course climate change.

NICK: Could you maybe just paint a picture of one of your projects at Blue Ventures, maybe just to kind of bring it all to life? Is there particular site or place you’ve been working for a period of time where you can actually see the change that’s happened over time for the marine life and also the communities and talk about the interventions you’ve had and what you’ve learnt from there?

ALASDAIR: The country that I would typically use when I talk about our work would be Madagascar, not least of all because I’ve spent much of the last 20 years working there and a great deal of it living there. Blue Ventures began in Madagascar in 2003 and at the time there were no locally managed marine protected areas, there were no areas of the coast that were managed or co-managed by fishing communities and that’s something of a paradox given the huge dependence of people on the sea in that country. It’s a country with one of Africa’s longest coastlines, it’s got a population the size of Australia with huge dependence on natural resources for support systems and for income.

When Blue Ventures began, we initially started conversations with a community in which we were based, around the establishment of a locally managed marine protected area, a marine reserve that was going to be established by fishing communities. And we very quickly realised that that was simply not a viable option, it was not something that we could even put on the table because of the enormous perceived opportunity costs of limiting access to the sea, even for just a small area of ocean within which we’d hope that coral reefs would recover from the huge pressures that they were seeing from over-fishing and from commercialisation of fisheries and from disruptive fishing and of course, bleaching from climate change which is now happening almost annually in large areas of Madagascar. And so, we were working in a context in which we recognised that conservation was essential to a sustainable future for this region’s marine economy and coastal communities and yet conservation was seen as not an option because of the absolutely unacceptable opportunity cost that it was perceived to present.

NICK: By which you mean, people need the fish on a daily basis, or whatever it is they’re harvesting from the sea, from which to live, and if you set up a no-take zone, for instance, as part of your marine protected area, then that’s a loss of income immediately, even though in the long term it’s going to provide more fish?

ALASDAIR: Absolutely. We were talking to ecologists that knew way more than we did about the status of the marine environment and the likely recovery of those fish stocks with management and those ecologists were traditional fishers, in this case from the Vezo communities of south-western Madagascar. And they understood better than we did the need for protection but they simply could not afford to forego fishing for a short period of time, typically 2, 3, 4, 5 years is what we’d need if we’re setting aside an area of coral reef to see the overspill that science predicts that we should see and will ultimately result in the fishery’s benefits beyond that protected area, as the recovered fish stocks and the replenishing biomass starts to spill over and swim out of the marine reserve. So we had to go back to the drawing board and come up with interventions and initiatives that could perhaps mitigate some of that perceived opportunity cost of conservation. It just so happens that in Madagascar the most important small-scale fishery, most economically important, is for a very high-value species that’s exported predominantly to European markets in Italy and Spain, it’s targeted predominantly by women, it’s fished throughout much of the west coast of the country, and it’s for a species that recovers very quickly and grows very fast.

And so theoretically we hypothesised that if we were to limit management to just this fishery for just a very short period of time, that might produce a pulse in production of that stock that could help change local attitudes towards conservation and that species was the day octopus, Octopus cyanea, and so a short-term closure was eventually established by communities using a customary social code called a dina that involved a blessing from the ancestors. And indeed, six months later, that fishery resulted in – when the closure was reopened – a huge surge in production in that fishery which was very, very visible and quite striking for the fishers, the men and the women that came to witness what happened when that closure was reopened. Gradually that model started to pick up momentum and scale, first north and south of that community and then hundreds of kilometres along the coast and to date, there have been several hundreds of these closures around thousands of kilometres of coastline around Madagascar and it’s scaled to other countries, but what crucially that initial fishery’s catalyst, if you like, was able to demonstrate to those communities was that yes they could benefit in the long run from conservation.

And gradually those very same communities that had previously been opposed to the establishment of permanent marine reserves elected to establish their first community-run marine reserves within which all forms of fishing were prohibited definite, and so the very first permanent marine no-take zones began having communities who had witnessed the fishery’s benefits of a lower-risk, shorter-term intervention. So fast-forward 15 years and 17.5% of that country’s in-shore seabed is now managed by communities within these so-called locally managed marine areas, that’s over 150 of them, some of them are vast, including the biggest on earth, some thousands of square kilometres in area. Now I’m not suggesting that all of these locally managed marine areas are delivering conservation results and are effective or more effective than permanent nationally-established marine no-take zones for instance, but what they have enabled is for communities to become engaged in local management, in fisheries management, to help secure traditional access to fishing grounds in some of these LMMAs, as they’re known in Madagascar, industrial fishing access has been taken away so communities are now able to regulate what’s going on within those marine areas themselves.

And that governance building, that confidence building, is in and of itself an incredibly powerful mechanism for driving local support for and engagement in broader marine management, elimination of destructive fishing bands, planning the timing and location of seasonal or permanent marine reserves. So there’s a huge amount more that goes on when local governance is inspired and enabled. What we focus our work on doing is finding those catalysts, helping overcome some of the barriers that communities face when we’re talking about conservation and shoring up some of the governance that these communities need in order to have secure management rights for the sea. And that’s easier said than done.

NICK: Indeed! What have been some of the changes you’ve seen over the past 15 years on the sites you’ve been working on? Let’s talk about Madagascar. Have you measured a change over time, have you managed to pick out some of the differences that have really occurred as a result of the work you’ve done?

ALASDAIR: In 15 years, we’ve focused a lot of our effort on studying the fisheries’ benefits of local marine management, so what are the production increases, do those increases more than outweigh the avoided income, the opportunity costs that communities will incur when a fishery is closed, even if just temporarily. And we’re confident that the models that we’ve developed are now delivering lasting fisheries benefits, we’ve published evidence of monthly internal rates of return over 90% for some of these fisheries. So staggering rates of recovery, and that’s in large part to the tremendous resilience and responsiveness of marine systems to management. I think the work of a marine conservationist is in many ways much easier than that of a terrestrial conservationist because we’re working with these ecosystems that are all talking to each other, they’re all connected, even if we haven’t got corridors, because larvae can swim and help reseed and replenish other areas beyond a managed closed area.

So we’ve seen staggering levels of production increases that have been hugely transformative in engaging and shaping hearts and minds around supporting broader and more ambitious level management interventions. What have been the conservation impacts? Much harder for us to measure. It costs a lot of time and money for us to put divers in the water, which is typically how we would study the ecological impacts of, for instance, a locally managed marine area. The backbone of Blue Ventures when we were established and that continues today is a marine ecotourism model, which we call Blue Ventures Expeditions, which takes paying volunteers to many of our sites, including Madagascar, to focus on marine monitoring.

And that has given us a huge body of data, including some of the longest-term quantitative coral reef monitoring sites in the Mozambique Channel, for instance, on which we can assess ecological changes over time. And we’ve got some fantastic observations now of resident biomass recovery from fish populations within those first permanent marine no-take zones established by communities in Madagascar. That’s incredibly important data that’s helping us see that local management is beneficial, not just to fisheries’ production, but also on some of those key indicators that help us understand the management effectiveness, like fish biomass actually recovering within these areas compared to areas outside and compared to the condition before.

NICK: And it seems like a lot of the work you’re involved in is looking at the kind of, the longer term; short-term fixes that lead to a long-term sustainable goal. And for you as Executive Director of Blue Ventures, I guess funding’s a key issue, you know, how do you fund this, how do you keep this going, how do you keep this growing as well and where is the scalability? You’ve found something that works, how do you then scale that across a country, across a region? And it’s really interesting that you had this social enterprise that’s kind of part of this mixed model, so you’re a charity and a social enterprise with eco-tourism, voluntourism as part of that. Where did the idea to bring that into the fold come from and why did you choose to do that?

ALASDAIR: In actual fact it was the other way around, the charity side got brought into the business side as a way of diversifying income away from just being a social enterprise and recognising, actually we did have a value proposition here, we were delivering great results in some of these contexts and we were eligible for philanthropic funding so why on earth didn’t we pursue it? I was a graduate when I set up Blue Ventures with a friend from university and we didn’t really know what we were doing and it took several years of learning on the ground to understand how not to run an organisation and how not to develop community partnerships, but crucially we were able to learn those lessons because Blue Ventures Expeditions was a commercial product and we were selling these experiences. It had to deliver tremendous experiences and value to our clients, our so-called volunteers, and our volunteers continue to join us to this day and we’re thrilled at the impact that that model has delivered to dozens of communities now, not just through the specific data but through simply the hosting and accommodation services. So we’re really proud of the role that we’re able to play simply in bringing low-impact responsible tourism into some of these markets and contexts that would otherwise simply not have access to that volume of responsible tourism.

NICK: Why did you decide to set up Blue Ventures Expeditions, where did the idea come from? What problems were you seeking to tackle?

ALASDAIR: As an undergraduate, I was lucky enough to receive some funding from the RGS, the Royal Geographical Society, to pursue an interest of mine which was looking at coral reefs in Madagascar, I was a keen diver, I spent my university years raising money for expeditions, diving trips that I would take every holiday to study reefs. And at the time conservation was about studying things, we had to document decline in order to be able to propose solutions and the decline was manifestly clear in a context like Madagascar post-El Niño, 1998 and quantifying that was key to developing recommendations that policy-makers would take onboard to enact management that would help those ecosystems recover, right? That’s what we were told. That’s why we studied this stuff. Only arriving in Madagascar as a 21, 22-year old with buckets of data, one very quickly was disabused of this somewhat naïve notion. First and foremost, I would be very lucky to get those data published, I wasn’t a particularly good scientist; secondly, how on earth would they help guide management? The barriers to marine sustainability in a context like Madagascar wouldn’t be influenced by whether or not I landed a paper in a peer review journal, let alone Science or Nature, they were economic challenges that communities faced on the beaches every single day. Whether or not they could pay school fees. How they were gonna access healthcare.

So I’d have to say, when I left university, I did feel that we’d been sold a bit of a myth about what mattered in conservation and what skills we needed. So what was apparent was that the only way that we could effect any meaningful change was by staying there after these expeditions had ended and trying to support our local counterparts to get involved at a local level in environmental planning and management, something that hadn’t happened at a local level in Madagascar previously. And that required money (laughter), the only way that I could think of to do that was to commercialise that same model that I’d developed as an undergraduate. So I looked to my experience in Madagascar to commercialise that. Of course, it was another actor in an already fraught marketplace but from the get-go we tried to demonstrate an entirely transparent, totally non-profit community-oriented approach that was embedded in community partnerships that would last forever. We never intended to have an exit strategy and we still don’t and we are still in the communities that we embarked on in 2003. So that ecotourism model is really how we cut our teeth and how it all began.

NICK: And nowadays, people know increasingly that volunteering is really important in terms of building skills and experiences for your conservation career, and yet also it’s had quite a bit of kick-back actually over the last few years too about feeling that it can be expensive to go on some projects, maybe some projects don’t give you the skills and experiences that you had hoped, that it’s going to benefit your career – what’s your view of the volunteering sector more generally, if I can ask you that?

ALASDAIR: We work with and alongside a number of fantastic organisations that use similar models to our own commercial models in which paying clients or volunteers get involved in educational experiences, conservation tourism with benefits being delivered to communities. We also see and are aware of, of course, a large number of actors that are involved in what I would call ecotourism, which is perfectly legitimate, often using terms like conservation to enhance their marketing appeal. That is morally dubious given that conservation is a form of international development, it’s a mission therefore I don’t feel that it is appropriate for somebody to be taking personal profit from such an enterprise. It’s not illegal to do that but of course I think that the broader sector has been compromised by the misadventures of a small number of organisations who shall remain nameless who sell experiences in the name of conservation that have very little to do with that. I think it’s very easy for a potential client or volunteer to look at the robustness and integrity of an organisation prior to embarking on one of those experiences, try to understand what the credibility is. There is a very broad spectrum of operators.

NICK: You’re full of energy, full of enthusiasm, full of passion. Are you full of optimism for the future? We hear a lot of doom and gloom in conservation. You mentioned coral bleaching already, you know, during this chat. Do you think that the future is still bright?

ALASDAIR: I’m as dismayed as anybody at the growing barrage of threats that we’re unleashing on our oceans and our tropical seas where we work are no exception. And yet, we also see against a backdrop of such stark changes and trends, we see extraordinary stories of hope. The fact that one of the poorest countries on earth with one of Africa’s biggest coastlines has gone from zero to nearly 18% of its coastline being managed by communities in a decade is astonishing. That’s a truly remarkable acceleration of local engagement in conservation. Despite a military-backed overthrow of that country’s government for five years of the last decade, despite growing poverty, despite growing insecurity, conservation is being seen as a pathway to development, conservation is being seen as a way to promote intercommunal cooperation, to empower women, to empower communities, to gain the rights to manage their seas sustainably. So we see some extraordinary outcomes, even in some of the most depressing contexts. Compare that to what’s going on in the UK, where we have less than 1/40th of a single per cent of our coastlines is managed as permanent no-take. Here we have one of the richest countries on earth that’s achieved almost nothing for conservation beyond lip service in terms of total no-take with what we see in Madagascar. I am hugely encouraged. I’m also encouraged by the extraordinary resilience that we see in marine systems if we can just give the stocks a chance to recover, they can demonstrate their plasticity and recoverability, and that can be transformative in helping shape hearts and minds. I’m also encouraged by how we’re increasingly seeing conservationists working in the field of international development and vice versa, we’re seeing a growth of integrated programming, people recognising that 2 + 2 can equal 5 when community health and livelihoods work and conservation are integrated in synergy, not just in parallel but as part of a broader integrated solution that’s responding to the unmet needs of communities that rely on biodiversity for survival.

NICK: It’s a challenging time but I’m filled with the optimism that you’re sharing, too so thanks a lot, Al, for finding the time to chat today, I’ve really enjoyed catching up with you and to hear your story about Blue Ventures and hearing where it might go in the near future. So much success already! If people wanted to find out more about Blue Ventures, where can they go?

ALASDAIR: We have a website, we have all the usual social media channels and we have a telephone and we’d love you to give us a call if you’re in Bristol or London, look us up, have a coffee and of course if you’re in any of the places that we work, we’d love to see you on the ground.

NICK: Great, and I encourage people to get that phone ringing. Thank you, Al, you take care!

ALASDAIR: Great, nice to talk.

NICK: Ok well I hope you enjoyed that, everyone. If you did then please do subscribe and give us a rating as it really helps us to get in front of more people. If you want to find out more about Al and his work at Blue Ventures then please visit BlueVentures.org and if you enjoy the interviews, we’ve collated the best advice from over 400 professional conservationists into a free e-book which you can download from the bottom of our website. And finally, if you’ve got any questions or suggestions from the podcast, please tweet them to @ConservCareers, we’d love to hear from you. Ok, till next time guys, this is Nick signing out.

NICK: Blue Ventures is an award-winning marine conservation organisation which rebuilds tropical forests with local…. (laughter) forests, they rebuild fisheries not forests!

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