Why you should care
Because Alasdair Harris believes the key to successful conservation lies in communities on land, not just science underwater.
OZY first profiled Alasdair Harris in the fall of 2014, when his company, Blue Ventures, was redefining smart marine conservation. Since then, Blue Ventures has been awarded the prestigious 2015 Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship, which comes with a $1.25 million, three-year investment to expand Harris’ work to further and bluer waters.
To marine ecologist Alasdair Harris, we’re going about this whole conservation thing wrong.
For a while, even he went about it wrong, he admits, spending years researching coral reefs off the coast of Madagascar. “We know coral reefs are dying,” he says now, with some impatience. “We don’t need to study it to another degree of precision.”
But there was something worse — counterproductive, he thought — in the workings of the environmental organizations that flocked to Madagascar. Their research projects were determined by faraway donors, not what was happening on the shore, and so they’d set up shop on the coast and declare fishing prohibited in a “Marine Protected Area.” Quite naturally, the locals, who made a living from fish and ate quite a bit of it too, would blow off the ban. As a result, most projects shut down when their grants ran out. Others would come to replace them.
I could spend my career working in the existing framework in conservation. … But we need a radically new approach.
“It’s an ephemeral, stab at the dark attempt” at conservation, says Harris, now 35. “It’s not grounded in communities. It’s inconsequential.”
It’s a common frustration among conservation nongovernmental organizations (NGOs): “How do you make conservation last beyond a funding end date?” says Jon Hoekstra, vice president and chief scientist of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
Harris got fed up after watching the cycle repeat for a few years. In 2003, he left his corals to start Blue Ventures, a social enterprise that uses basic economic principles to save sea life. To wit: Instead of just telling people to stop fishing, it helps them with ecotourism and aquaculture projects that replace income lost from fishing. From time to time, Blue Ventures does close fisheries, but only for about three months: When they reopen, stocks are replenished and fishing yields go up.
All of which is to say that he is an ocean conservationist who believes some of the answers are on land. “I could spend my career working in the existing framework in conservation,” Harris says. “It’s fun and inspiring. But we need a radically new approach.”
Tall and lanky, with a milk-smooth face and a high, bookish forehead, Harris speaks earnestly from his house in Bristol, where he lives with his girlfriend. He moved to Bristol in 2013 after living in Madagascar for the past six years. Although he still travels to Madagascar occasionally, he spends most of his time traveling to promote Blue Ventures’ conservation models.
“I’ve always been an environmentalist,” he says. At 8 years old, he set up a recycling program at his elementary school. He was a “keen naturalist” too, collecting insects and devouring books on Indo-Pacific marine diversity.
Perhaps most revolutionary are Blue Ventures’ family planning efforts, which Harris thinks are crucial to conservation.
At 18, he went on a scuba expedition in the Philippines, funded by his job stacking pet food at a supermarket. Harris still waxes poetic about those dives: “We’re talking unimaginable diversity and beauty and complexity … enveloping you for hours a day in a weightless environment. It’s like evolution on acid. It’s unbelievable.”
He set out to become a marine biologist. While at one point he flirted with medicine, that was short-lived: Harris found himself stealing away to the library every night to check out marine biology books. So he went ahead with his Ph.D., in zoology, at the University of Warwick. He researched how coral reefs respond to climate change and often traveled to Madagascar for fieldwork, where other many global conservation NGOs also had project sites.
Harris believes that, although it critically informs conservation programs, it has limits. In fact, his scientific background amounted to only a sliver of a Madagascar fisherman’s knowledge of the hundreds of fish species along the coastline.
In 2003, Harris scaled down the ivory tower and “began to think like an entrepreneur.” In Madagascar, he offered lessons in diving, identifying fish species and food security to fund small, community-based fisheries management programs — the beginnings of Blue Ventures.
Flash-forward to 2014, and Blue Ventures employs more than 90 staff members, most of them locals. Its most successful fisheries management program closes about a quarter of a community’s octopus gleaning grounds for a few months to protect spawning stock — shown to boost octopus landings upon reopening. Harris says it “enables people to see that they themselves can rebuild their fisheries” — and broadens their support for permanent reserves.
Blue Ventures also diversifies communities’ income sources by training locals to farm sea cucumbers — highly in demand as an aphrodisiac, delicacy and health food in Asia — and red seaweed, often added to food and cosmetics products. Meanwhile, budding conservationists can purchase expeditions to explore coral reefs.
While living in Tana during the 2008 military coup, Harris ran from automatic gunfire to escape political demonstrations.
But perhaps most revolutionary are its family planning efforts, which Harris thinks are crucial to conservation. “When your population is entirely dependent on fishing … and the population size is doubling every 10 years because of lack of access to [contraception], I would see women’s empowerment as directly conservation-oriented,” Harris says. The organization provides local women with contraceptives at cost price to sell in their communities.
It hasn’t all been easy. Since the organization’s launch, Madagascar has undergone two military coups. While living in Tana during the 2008 coup, Harris ran from automatic gunfire to escape political demonstrations.
Through it all, Harris “works 24/7” — while still finding time for paragliding and ultramarathons, says Jonathan Katz, a Blue Ventures trustee. But maybe Harris goes too fast. Katz believes “he should perhaps be more patient, especially when dealing with larger and less fast-moving organizations … where his impatience and frustration with bureaucratic processes and corporate politics can cost us some friends.”
Harris differs, as he is prone to do. “Mine is the last generation that has the opportunity to change the trajectory of the extinction our species has started,” he says. “I don’t think we have a choice to do anything except every single thing we can to turn this ship around.”