AL HARRIS

United Kingdom,

Al Harris is creating a unique, viral model that encourages and promotes the creation of local, community-run Marine Protected Areas that increases the communities’ quality of life and protect the marine environment.

This profile below was prepared when Al Harris was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2007.
MEDIA MENTIONS

INTRODUCTION

In today’s global economy, communities that previously had been subsistence-based are now subject to external market forces that are changing their societies and threatening their natural environments and ways of life. In many instances, these communities do not have the tools or information necessary to partake in the new economic landscape. Al Harris has created a model that can help such communities connect to the global economy in a way that also improves natural resource management.




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

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 STRATEGY

Al founded Blue Ventures (BV) to help change the way fishing communities interact with their natural environment by providing information and incentives that drive them to act collectively in order to establish and manage MPAs that can restore and protect fragile marine environments.

Al knew that in order to create successful MPAs, he needed fishers to recognize that it was in their interests to respect these zones and protect the source of their livelihoods. To do so, he collects complex information on the marine environment and feeds it back to communities appropriately, and then encourages and guides them to use the information to create MPAs.

Blue Ventures organizes expeditions consisting of scientists and volunteers to carry out research and collect data for the purposes of conservation. Up to twenty-five international volunteers take part in the Blue Ventures Expeditions at any one time, where they learn to dive, are given extensive training, and are tasked with collecting extensive data about the flora and fauna of the local marine environment. The fees from these expeditions fund the data collection and support regional conservation and education.

The data is then fed back to communities to help them understand and acknowledge the benefits of collective ecological management within the local context. Al achieves this first-hand understanding by showing the concrete benefits when the community agrees to forgo immediate fishing in clearly limited areas for a defined period of time. Al also helps communities develop workable management and decision-making structures around the MPAs so that local leaders can continue to design and manage these tools. Once the MPA has been implemented Al works with the community to document each improvement. The long-term benefits of continued management quickly become apparent, and are then actively pursued by local inhabitants.

While perfecting his model, Al recognized that fishing communities were most receptive when they could see immediate economic benefits from environmental protection and resource management—not benefits in the long-term. Al discovered that octopus, which has a relatively short maturity cycle of about five months, could be restored quickly in an MPA. Conventional MPAs focus on fish species, which take two to five years to rejuvenate target stocks, and on complex coral ecosystems that can take a decade or more to mature. Al encouraged communities to establish MPAs for five months in targeted, defined regions (as identified by the data collected) to restore the octopus population. When the MPAs were opened, fishermen found an enormous growth in number and size of octopus, which they could sell for substantially more than any finned fish in the large and growing international market for octopus.

 

Al’s work demonstrated without doubt that establishing an MPA for a limited period can significantly increases the number of octopus as well as the mean weight of octopus caught. This translated into increased income almost immediately, while also securing long-term eco-benefits. This result has had the effect of mobilizing local citizens for the first time to take ownership over protecting their local marine environments.

To further engage the community, Al increasingly employs fishers and other locals in the BV research on MPAs. MPA employees help spread the mission of BV in all the villages of the region by representing BV at local meetings. Al also involves scientists in Madagascar in a tripartite research program: Exploring the socioeconomic impact of this model, developing other tools for marine protection, and increasing environmental and educational awareness. Finally, Al works with fisher communities to develop other income streams to supplement their fishing including eco-lodges and eco-tourism, farming sea cucumbers, and other non-extractive but lucrative activities.

Starting with one fisher village, Al has within two years motivated twenty-three additional villages to adopt this approach and has struck up a relationship with villagers looking to replicate his approach covering an adjacent 200km of coastline as well as projects in the Andaman and Comoros Islands. Al has devised a replication methodology and a documented series of “how-tos” that will enable his model to be rolled out for maximum impact across diverse locations. His model is still in its early stages, but the work of Blue Ventures has prompted interest from communities throughout the Indian Ocean region.

BV employs five full-time staff in London, assisted by voluntary staff and interns, and employs between twenty-five and thirty staff in Madagascar at any one time. These employees are also assisted by fifteen to twenty volunteers and interns. BV’s annual budget is approximately £240,000 (US$355,200), of which approximately £210,000 (US$310,000) is generated through the ecotourism business, and the remainder raised by the charity through independent research grants.




THE PERSON

Al spent the first ten years of his life in Scotland near the river Tweed, where he developed an early bond with wild spaces of beauty that acted as an escape and an inspiration for him for years to come. With a veterinarian father whose background can be traced back to fourteen generations of Quakers, and a government prosecutor mother of Presbyterian stock, Al was raised in a school of hard work, expectation, and comparative austerity.

While an undergraduate at Edinburgh, Al founded a University society, the Edinburgh University Coral Awareness and Research Expeditions (Eucare), to raise money for marine conservation and increase student involvement in overseas research and development projects. Since its establishment the society has sent five marine research expeditions around the world, involving thirty students in grass-roots conservation program and raising over £100,000 for marine research. More importantly it has spawned the creation of similar initiatives from other Universities including Oucare (Oxford), and Ducare (Durham).

It was also during his time in Edinburgh that Al began looking for ways to fund research he was interested in conducting in the Indian Ocean’s bio-spots, and became aware of the Royal Geographic Society in Edinburgh, an organization with a long tradition of ecological expeditions. He requested the Society to finance a research expedition to Madagascar, where he led a team of classmates and friends. While he does not consider the expedition to have been of great academic value, it taught him much about the exigencies of managing an expedition and about problems with traditional approaches to environmental management. It was on this trip that Al recognized his talent for leading, motivating, and managing people. On his return, Al was awarded a medal for his expedition by the Duke of Edinburgh, and this public recognition filled him with a “naïve confidence” in his own abilities, which proved enormously useful to later enterprises. Al promptly organized a second expedition to Madagascar.

Al eventually graduated with the best marks of the year, obtaining an honors degree in zoology. He was deeply affected by the ravages of the El Niño phenomenon of 1998, and became increasingly interested in the effects on the environment on both nature and human beings. This would later dictate his choice to study climate change while pursuing his Master’s degree at Oxford University. It was between his undergraduate degree and his graduate studies at Oxford that Al had the opportunity, during a two-month project in South Africa where he tagged sharks, to hatch the idea of setting up a business using his experience of diving expeditions to fund marine protection efforts.




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