An organisation born from one Oxford student’s urge to make a difference is coming up with innovative ways to safeguard imperilled marine habitats — and benefit the communities that depend on them.

School of surgeon fish on a very beautiful colorful coral reef underwater. Maldives island.

By Lindsey Harrad

Witnessing the devastating impact of the 1998–9 El Niño ocean warming event on Pacific coral reefs during a gap year was both ‘disturbing and transformative’, says Alasdair Harris (Mansfield College, 2002). It launched a deep-rooted fascination with the biodiversity of tropical marine ecosystems.

At Oxford his interest in conservation research led him to chair the OU Exploration Club – and then to launch his own initiative to harness money in support of protecting sea-life. ‘After organising a number of expeditions as a student, I set up marine conservation organisation Blue Ventures while still at Mansfield,’ he says.

Working with fellow graduate student Tom Savage, Alasdair’s work with Blue Ventures began by commercialising marine research expeditions to raise revenue to help launch the organisation’s early conservation efforts in the Indian ocean.

Alasdair Harris‘Our intention was to create a financially sustainable framework on which a future non-profit could operate,’ says Harris (right). ‘Our model enables anyone in the world to come and train with us — learning to scuba dive, discovering hundreds of species of extraordinary Indo-Pacific animals — and then to do something practical and meaningful to safeguard the future of the reefs. Today we take hundreds of people all over the world to sites in the Caribbean, the Pacific, South-East Asia and Africa, and this provides much-needed revenue to support our conservation efforts worldwide.’

Blue Ventures has since evolved into a substantial marine conservation organisation with a growing portfolio of field programmes from Belize to East Timor, and was recently the winner of the prestigious $1.2 million Skoll Award for social entrepreneurship. But Harris admits it’s been a steep learning-curve at times.

‘We’ve seen from working alongside some of the poorest communities on earth that conservation isn’t just about writing papers and publishing in academic journals. Safeguarding our oceans’ biodiversity is quite simply a question of survival for local people. Globally, hundreds of millions of people are in a predicament in which their livelihoods, food security and futures are threatened by an unfolding biodiversity crisis, trapped in a cycle of poverty and declining natural resources.’

Keen to develop scalable, sustainable, incentive-based models for marine conservation, Blue Ventures piloted new approaches to fisheries management. The organisation showed coastal Madagascar communities how they could achieve substantial short-term returns in octopus fishing productivity simply by closing small areas of coral reef on rotation. ‘Periodic short-term closures of these fast-growing invertebrate stocks can create very powerful profits for these communities, which are also strong catalysts for more ambitious management efforts, as communities recognise that they themselves can be the custodians of a turnaround in their resources,’ says Harris.

‘Ten years ago there were no locally managed marine protected areas anywhere in the country, and today there are more than 65, collectively covering around 14 per cent of the country’s sea bed. And this has all come about through this catalytic model of community-led fisheries management that gained the most incredible traction and momentum, going viral along the coastline — and in several neighbouring countries.’

Working in these remote and under-served areas also alerted Blue Ventures organisers to other areas of community need, including access to basic health services. In 2007, the Blue Ventures team opened its first community health clinic in Madagascar in response to local demand, and Harris says they soon began to see some astounding social changes.

Single coral on a Madagascar beach

‘Today we support networks of local women trained as community health workers to provide services to around 25,000 people along Madagascar’s western coastline, and have witnessed some compelling results; the proportion of women in a large area of the southern region choosing to use contraceptives has increased from less than 10% when we started to 55%, which is significantly more than the nationwide average. The general fertility rate has dropped by around 40% in that region, which is boosting the sustainability of local marine conservation efforts, and now — often for the first time — women are able to plan their families as they choose.

‘We are seeing them becoming more involved in fisheries management, with women now making up more than a third of conservation management committee members in this region; and many are working as seaweed and sea cucumber farmers to diversify their family income. Like our fisheries and conservation models, we are now working to scale up this approach across the western Indian Ocean region, and we’ve just launched our first integrated health-environment partnerships in Mozambique.’

Portrait of Alasdair Harris by Toby Sawday. Undersea image by Oksana Stock via Shutterstock. Madagascar beach image by aaabbbccc via Shutterstock.

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By Dr Henry Jagger...

The "No Take Zones" or "Marine Protected Areas" around the UK coast have, I believe, already proved to be a great success with fish and other marine-life stocks increasing dramatically in neighbouring areas.
I retired many years ago to a coastal village in SE Devon with a small traditional fishing industry and take a great interest in the local marine environment. Our local fishermen were initially very resistant to the idea of No Take Zones but are now seeing, and acknowledging, the benefits.
From a conservation viewpoint, our Lyme Bay reef, which was being devastated by scallop dredging, is now recovering well and corals such as the Pink Sea Fan are returning in abundance.
That said, there are occasional problems with larger boats from further away making illegal raids but our local small boats now understand, respect, and benefit from the arrangements - long may they stand!