Al Harris

Ashoka Fellow
London, United Kingdom
Fellow Since 2007


This profile was prepared when Al Harris was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2007.
The New Idea
Al has designed a model of sustainable, locally run Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in Madagascar that both increases marine communities’ income and protects the marine environment. His organization, Blue Ventures, acts as a catalyst for local conservation by piloting efforts that have immediate economic and environmental benefit, and then handing off ownership to local leaders and fishermen.

Blue Ventures begins by facilitating communication and collaboration between subsistence communities in Madagascar with fragile marine ecosystems and citizen sector organisations, tourists, the public, scientists, and policy makers from outside these communities. Fishing communities receive new information and training about how to better manage their environment, in addition to the opportunities made available by the global economy. At the same time, leading international environmental conservation groups, scientists, environmental advocates, policymakers, student volunteers and others that work closely with Blue Ventures learn how to work effectively with—and not around—local communities, and thus ultimately how to design successful models in other regions where fragile marine ecosystems are in danger.

The Problem Marine stocks in southwest Madagascar are being depleted and fragile coral reef ecosystems are disappearing because of the stresses created by population increases and global climate change. This problem is further compounded by the fact that global commercial fishing industries have recently entered the region, targeting almost all exploitable marine resources, further threatening marine stocks, and pressuring local economies.

In southwest Madagascar, local communities rely on fishing for both subsistence and income, with fishing accounting for over 70 percent of income-generating activities. Artisanal fishing for octopus has become especially lucrative, with enormous and growing international demand for octopus. However, as these communities shift from subsistence to market-based economies, fishermen are over-fishing, stocks are being depleted, and communities have yet to respond to the looming crisis. As the commercial market for fish and octopus grow, incentives for conservation simply do not exist among the region’s most economically deprived and isolated communities.

There is a host of evidence about the benefits of creating Marine Protected Areas to restore and protect fragile marine ecosystems, but, unfortunately, the evidence is not sufficient to spark behavioral change. Moreover, current MPA models often do not work because they fail to compel communities to act together, or to impart any local ownership or governance to the protected area. Such initiatives often stem from a top-down approach to management (either through legislation or large international citizen organizations) and attempt to restrict access to an area in the name of biodiversity conservation, but underestimate the overwhelming incentive for fishers to fish unsustainably and overexploit marine resources.

However, some form of intervention is clearly needed: Local communities lack the tools and expertise to independently establish their own MPAs and conduct scientific surveys of local marine habitat. Without proper information and training, local communities will go on over-fishing and destroying marine environments over the long-term. In this way, rather than enjoying the benefits of a robust global economy, fishing communities will suffer and eventually disappear without a way to collectively survive in the global marketplace.
The Problem
The Strategy
The Person


Alasdair Harris received the 2015 Skoll Award for “Building sustainable coastal communities." Read more here:

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