In Andavadoaka, a Vezo village on the western coast of Madagascar, marine ecosystems are a precious resource. Over 71 percent of Vezo people rely on fishing as their sole source of income. But local fisheries can no longer support local demand: the Vezo population doubles every 10–15 years, and higher-yield fishing techniques put ecosystems under greater pressure. “From 1980 to 2000, there were always plenty of fish,” said Alex Nobert, a native of Andavadoaka, in an interview with Blue Ventures. “Since 2001, fish have become more and more rare. We have to go 5 to 15 kilometers to find fish.”

In 2003, Ashoka Fellow Alisdair Harris founded Blue Ventures to develop marine conservation programs together with local communities, putting resources back in the hands of villagers and creating fisheries that are economically and environmentally sustainable. These conservation programs provide incentives to develop sustainable fisheries management, protecting marine resources while still developing local economies and retaining livelihoods. Blue Ventures has also created an award-winning ecotourism program in which paying volunteers assist local scientists with conservation projects—in Andavadoaka, volunteers chart coral reefs, calculate fish populations, and monitor local catches. The result is a conservation program that is run by and focused on the local community and does not need continuous outside funding.

At the core of Blue Ventures’ conservation strategy is the creation of community-run marine protected areas through which unstable ecosystems are temporarily closed off to fishermen to allow them to recover. The Nosy-Fasy marine reserve in Andavadoaka was Blue Ventures’ first marine protected area. Faced with declining weights and populations of octopus—a valuable food source and export for Andavadoaka—the Vezo people partnered with Blue Ventures to create the reserve in 2005 to protect the area from exploitation by outside interests and ensure that marine resources benefit local communities. The villagers have legal control over the reserve. “For these people to close off fishing grounds as reserves is a real sacrifice,” said Garth Cripps, Blue Ventures project coordinator, in an interview on Vimeo. “It’s courageous. Yet they have the insight to recognize there is a real problem.” Following the first closure of Nosy-Fasy, local octopus catches increased by a factor of 13, with the average octopus weighing 25 times preclosure amounts; results have continued to be encouraging.

Blue Ventures also tackles one of the root causes of overfishing: population growth. With an average of nearly seven children born to each woman, Vezo populations have grown quickly, placing greater demands on fisheries and depleting marine populations. To address this issue, Blue Ventures has created reproductive health and family planning clinics in over 50 villages. “We’re empowering women to have a choice about family size, to have a choice about spacing their children,” Harris told BBC World Challenge.

Since its beginnings in Andavadoaka, Blue Ventures has expanded to create the largest community-run marine reserve in the Indian Ocean, bringing economic and social benefits to over 10,000 people in 25 villages. In June, Blue Ventures was named the winner of the 2011 Buckminster Fuller Challenge, receiving $100,000 to fund its programs. “For the first time in marine conservation, we’re able to demonstrate enduring economic benefits to traditional fishing communities from short-term closures of fisheries,” said Harris. “We’re confident that this holistic, whole systems approach brings important lessons that are relevant to many other communities that are struggling with poverty and environmental degradation.”

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