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Octopus fishing

Enrique GiliSeptember 1, 2015

Declaring sections of the ocean off-limits through marine protected areas isn't effective without a means to enforce fishing bans. Blue Ventures believes a market-based approach to conservation could be the answer.

A diver catching an octopus under the water
Image: Garth Cripps / Blue Ventures

Blue Ventures may be onto something. The UK-based nonprofit organization operates on the basis that to succeed, marine conservation schemes need to enlist local communities as allies. This credo places as much emphasis on the rights of fishing communities, as on the protection of endangered coral reefs or sea turtles. And that is vital.

According to Alasdair Harris, executive director of #link:http://blueventures.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Marine-Management-Pays.pdf:Blue Ventures#, conservation is a "four letter word" for tropical nearshore fisheries because it is perceived as depriving local communities of a livelihood during the time fish stocks remain untapped as they rebound.

"Ultimately everybody gains from the existence of protected areas in the sea to improve fish stocks, but the challenge is: What do we do while waiting for those fish stocks to recover," Harris said. He has spent a long time exploring possible solutions.

In 2001, inspired by Jacques Cousteau's aquatic expeditions in the Indian Ocean, Harris went to Madagascar to study reef ecology. He knew from anecdotal evidence that reef-dwelling octopuses were in decline. Among the reasons for this were the demand for fresh seafood in southern Europe, and the arrival of collection and processing businesses locally in the 2000s.

Harris saw the potential of a species that grows and matures quickly. He realized that octopuses' capability to double in size and tripling their weight in a matter of months would enable fishing communities to harvest larger specimens and therefore fish less often.

So in 2003, Harris co-founded Blue Ventures with the goal of preserving reef habitats and the livelihoods of the people depending on them.

Humble beginnings

It began with a modest plan to create an octopus reserve. He persuaded elders of the fishing village of Andavadoaka to agree to set aside 200 hectares of their ancestral fishing grounds for a trial six-month period. That ended up being long enough for the site's resident octopus population to rebound, and produce what Harris describes as a tremendous catch - both in terms of size, and quantity.

Two men walk up the beach with nets under their arms
Fishermen are enouraged to keep their nets on land for months at a timeImage: Garth Cripps / Blue Ventures

Word about the success of the project quickly spread across the island, and similar conservation schemes dubbed LMMAs (Locally Managed Marine Areas) now protect large swaths of Madagascar's coastline. Hundreds of villages are on board, and Harris says there have been ripple effects throughout the region.

To benchmark their efforts, Blue Ventures measured the impact of short-term closures from 36 sites over an eight-year period, and compared their economic performance to locations with no bans in place.

The findings were published in the peer-reviewed science journal #link:http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0129075:PLOS One#. Villages that refrained from catching octopus for a period of two to seven months doubled their pre-closure earnings in the 30 days after reopening, with #link:http://blueventures.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Marine-Management-Pays.pdf:no net loss of income# due to the temporary off-limits action.

Sea change

Harris calls the scheme a catalyst for marine protection. "Short-term closures have since become the foot in the door for community-based conservation efforts in Madagascar," he said.

Since 2004, the island has seen a series of conservation initiatives spearheaded by Blue Ventures and supported by fishing communities. They include the expansion of short-term closures of mangrove swamps, and official government recognition of some schemes. Tanzania and the neighboring island nation of Mauritius have embarked on similar conservation schemes.

In April 2015, Harris received the $1.25 million Skoll Award for social innovation for his work with fishing communities in Madagascar. He is clear about his recipe for success.

"You listen to what people need to arrive at solutions that come from the communities, and conservationists have to be entrepreneurial and come out of our silos of science," he said.

Big impact

More than a billion people live along tropical coastlines, and for many that acts as a lifeline. The ocean is not only a source of food, but provides jobs for millions of people worldwide. And that comes with its own set of problems.

"Employment is the main factor driving sustainability issues in the developing world," says Yemi Oloruntuyi, a spokesperson for the #link:https://www.msc.org/:Marine Stewardship Council.#

#link:http://www.sciencemag.org/content/314/5800/787:Studies# suggest that without safeguards and a comprehensive plan in place to manage nearshore fisheries, wild seafood stocks may be exhausted within decades. And this is a scenario that would lead to increased competition for resources, with too many boats chasing too few fish.

According to recent findings published in the journal "Science," only 7 percent of fisheries in the developing world are certified as sustainable.

Due to the work of conservation groups like Blue Ventures, however, consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the state of global fisheries. And that awareness leads to calls for improved management fishing practices.

"There's a growing interest in the marketplace for sustainable seafood. Vendors want to know where their fish comes from," Oloruntuyi added.

As for Harris, he wants to see the Blue Ventures model replicated elsewhere across Madagascar - and to continue enlisting the help of local communities to ensure the fisheries remain robust.

A woman walking in the sea
Fishing is a big part of life in MadagascarImage: Garth Cripps / Blue Ventures
The seas around Madagascar are refilling with octopus stockImage: Garth Cripps / Blue Ventures
White sand, blue sea and a row of houses
Blue Ventures is working to make this ocean paradise more profitable for localsImage: Garth Cripps / Blue Ventures