(Illustration by Adam McCauley) 

Older residents of Andavadoaka, a coastal village in southwest Madagascar, can recall a time when fishing trips would yield boats filled to the brim with the day’s catch. Back then, the coral reefs hosted a dizzying array of sea creatures. Sharks were so numerous that villagers were forbidden from swimming during their feeding times at dawn and dusk.

Today, this underwater bounty is much diminished, and what little remains faces an increasingly uncertain future. Foreign fishing fleets are steadily emptying Madagascar’s waters of marine life. Soils loosened by decades of deforestation are running off into the sea, smothering the vulnerable reefs of an island so rich in unique plant and animal life that it is known as the eighth continent. And by unleashing a torrent of increasingly extreme weather events, climate change is dealing further blows to this fragile ecosystem.

Some of the hardest hit by this ecological crisis are the Vezo, seminomadic traditional fishers who live along Madagascar’s arid southwest coast. Among these master mariners, seafood is the sole source of protein in almost every meal—and a meal is far from guaranteed. Their average income, also provided by the sea, is less than $2 per day.

But this is not a story of acquiescence. With their very survival under threat, the Vezo are battling, village by village, to return their seas to abundance. And their effort is turning conventional thinking about marine conservation on its head.

I first heard about the Vezo’s fight six years ago while researching effective marine conservation initiatives at the University of York in the United Kingdom. There I learned about marine protected areas (MPAs), parts of the oceans where potentially damaging activities such as fishing are limited or banned. In principle, MPAs are a dazzlingly simple and effective idea: You close an area to fishing, and, a few years later, you have more, bigger fish, some of which swim out of the closed zone and into fishing nets beyond. Even better, since bigger fish are more fertile, you also have more larvae venturing beyond protected boundaries, replenishing local fishing grounds year after year. For these reasons, MPAs are often touted as a win-win approach, benefiting people and nature alike. They have become especially popular with policymakers rushing to meet international obligations to protect 10 percent of the world’s oceans by 2020.

With more than 17,000 sites worldwide, MPAs certainly have scale, but what about their impact? Here the waters become muddied. Despite the impressive numbers, most MPAs are failing. Existing in name only, these paper parks lack the financing, management, and enforcement they need to deliver the promised biological and social benefits.

All too often, MPAs are imposed upon fishing communities without adequate consultation or compensation. But for many of the hundreds of millions of people living around tropical coasts who need to fish to feed their families, accessing their fishing grounds is simply too important to sacrifice. This often places conservation at loggerheads with the needs of coastal communities, paradoxically the very people who depend most on its success and who could be its champions.

I found the Vezo’s story so compelling because they had figured out a solution to the broken models of marine conservation. With the support of the British social enterprise Blue Ventures (BV), they introduced their own form of community-centered fisheries management that both improved their livelihoods and conserved valuable marine resources for the future.

After I obtained funding for my doctoral research, I jumped on a plane to the Western Indian Ocean in 2011 and began working with BV and the Vezo.

Under Local Management

BV launched its work with Vezo communities in 2003, with an acclaimed conservation tourism program in Andavadoaka. The initiative trains paying volunteers in tropical marine research and conservation, collecting much-needed scientific data, while also providing reliable income to the community. Together with donor funding, profits from the ecotourism operations are used to fund conservation efforts.

The tourism model also gives BV something that most conservation organizations lack: a sustained, long-term presence within a community. The trust and understanding that this permanence built enabled us to see that many villagers saw conservation as a threat, a way of preventing them from fishing. To overcome this perception, we realized that we needed a clear demonstration of the potential benefits of conservation.

For this, we turned to an unlikely eight-legged ally. In this region of Madagascar, octopuses provide vital food and income for local communities. With the majority of catches sold for export to Europe, octopuses offer one of the region’s only sources of cash income. Yet octopus stocks were struggling. As concern mounted, we staged a radical intervention, joining forces with villagers to build support for a temporary community-enforced ban on octopus fishing in a small reef. Because octopuses grow fast and are more fertile the larger they get, a closure for just a few months promised to boost stocks.

The plan worked. When the ban was lifted, fishers harvested far larger octopuses, in far greater numbers. Catches improved so dramatically that nearby villages began to follow suit with their own closures. Spurred on by these successes, Andavadoaka and two dozen neighboring communities rallied together to establish an ambitious new conservation initiative: a locally managed marine area (LMMA) of 640 square kilometers in which destructive fishing techniques such as poisoning and beach seining have been banned, and reserves permanently off-limits to all fishing have been established. They called this new area Velondriake, a Vezo word meaning “to live with the sea.” Velondriake was Madagascar’s first LMMA—a novel creation managed entirely by communities, for communities, that incorporated measures rejected as unworkable by these same communities a few years previously.

By 2016, more than 250 of these short-term fishery closures had taken place, not only for octopus but also for other community-harvested species such as mud crab and spiny lobster. The result: In the month after closures were lifted at 36 sites, villagers caught more than 700 percent more octopus than in the month before the closures were imposed.

The growth in LMMAs has been no less impressive. Velondriake’s success has inspired coastal communities across Madagascar to establish their own initiatives. This emergent network of more than 65 LMMAs now covers more than 11 percent of Madagascar’s seabed, and in 2014 President Hery Rajaonarimampiesona pledged to triple his country’s MPA coverage with a focus on community-centered approaches. In little more than a decade, this movement has become a dominant force in the country’s conservation, and it is continuing to expand with a scale and ambition that’s unparalleled among countries abutting the Indian Ocean.

Scaling and Sustaining Conservation

This simple, replicable, grassroots model is at the heart of BV’s mission. By anchoring efforts in meaningful economic incentives, it engages rather than alienates coastal communities, catalyzing the development of more ambitious, durable marine conservation initiatives. It builds trust and engagement at the local level, and underpins other work in aquaculture, community health, and coastal carbon markets.

Having demonstrated the model’s effectiveness in Madagascar, BV is now striving for impact at scale, aiming to reach three million people across the world’s tropical coastal regions by 2020. With core support from the Skoll Foundation, which awarded BV its prize for social entrepreneurship in 2015, and partners such as the Mulago Foundation, we are working to take this model to new communities, new countries, and new waters. At this early stage, we are already collaborating with nearly 20 partners in nine countries. In each case, we are working to establish temporary closures on the harvesting of certain fast-growing species to boost catches and incomes and, hopefully, to inspire and sustain community-led marine conservation initiatives.

What have we learned so far on this journey? Three things stand out.

First, seeing is believing. Many of the LMMAs—and the fishery closures that preceded them—have been kick-started by peer-to-peer learning exchanges, in which men and women from different communities are brought together to share knowledge and experience in community-based fisheries management. As conservationists, we are merely facilitating this dialogue; the real change happens on the beaches and landing sites of the communities we support.

Second, the formation of grassroots learning networks that share experience and best practices can drive and sustain massive improvement. Once each community returns home and implements new approaches, it can call on a broad network of like-minded communities and organizations for support. Together they can amplify their voices in ways they could not on their own. We are now seeing a new wave of policy efforts to improve and streamline legal processes and mechanisms for securing access rights for artisanal fisheries in the Indian Ocean.

Third, keep it simple. International replication has a checkered history in conservation and development, and things only get more difficult as the complexity of the intervention increases. Initially at least, we have found that targeting new partners working in similar contexts to ours is more successful. For this reason, our near-term focus is on species that we know, primarily in the Indian Ocean. Once we have demonstrated replicability across international borders, we will be better placed to expand our horizons to other fisheries and regions.

Marine conservation efforts can fail when local fishers lack incentives for embracing them. By prioritizing the needs of coastal communities, we stand a chance of mobilizing the hundreds of millions of people who work in and around fishing worldwide to support conservation, rather than see it as a threat.

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