Eco-entrepreneur Alasdair Harris is passionate about conserving marine biodiversity, and he’s doing it in unusual ways. While most marine conservationists focus on what’s in the water, Harris’ company Blue Ventures works with people in poverty-stricken coastal communities to engage them in rebuilding tropical fisheries and in the process of protecting both their ecosystems and livelihoods. The company’s approach: eco-tourism.
We spoke to Harris about why humanity’s marine conservation efforts to date haven’t worked — and his vision to change that.
How did Blue Ventures get started?
I was studying zoology in 2000, learning about the enormous threats that were wreaking havoc on the world’s coral reefs, which are the rainforests of the ocean. I was already a keen scuba diver, and this got me asking myself: how on Earth can an undergraduate student in Scotland do something meaningful to help tackle the mass extinction that’s taking place beneath the waves?
I set to work raising money to take a group of fellow students to the Indian Ocean to learn more about what was happening, and contribute in some small way to studying these unprecedented changes. My initial focus was on coral reefs in Madagascar, because this part of the Indian Ocean is one of those regions where we just didn’t know what’s there — there’s a huge gap in the literature. Sadly, this is true for many places; we understand tragically little about so much of our oceans, and marine biodiversity is being lost before we even know it exists.
This isn’t just a tragedy for nature. It’s also a critical issue for many of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people. Almost 1-and-a-half billion of us live around our tropical coasts. Hundreds of millions of these people depend on fishing for survival. Our planet’s so-called small-scale fisheries are anything but small — they’re a lifeline underpinning cultures, food security and livelihoods. So tropical marine conservation isn’t just about conserving marine wilderness to satisfy the curiosity of biologists. It’s a human issue of enormous global importance, at the intersection of food security, conservation, and development. It’s an issue on the front line of climate change.
That first trip was an old-fashioned expedition, funded by Edinburgh University and the Royal Geographical Society, among others. Our goal then was simply — perhaps naively — to put these reefs on the map. But it quickly became apparent that we couldn’t hope to change anything simply by carrying out research. The money was spent and we put together some species lists, but we didn’t achieve anything practical in terms of helping either the reefs or the people that depended on them. The only real winners were those of us getting to dive in these fabulous seas.
This troubled me — it was clear that conservation was about much more than simply indulging a scientific interest in these extraordinary underwater ecosystems. Conservation today is about people, markets and behavioral change. And making change happen requires a totally different approach to simply publishing papers and hoping someone might read them: it means listening to what communities need, developing a deep understanding of local issues — and all that requires a permanent presence and commitment — plus funding for the long haul.
After that first trip, I decided to raise the bar. Each summer for over the next two years, our team went back to the Indian Ocean — to Madagascar and the adjacent republics of Comoros and Tanzania. We raised money during the year as students, running marathons and shaking buckets in the streets of Edinburgh and Oxford.
Madagascar was then recovering from political turmoil following disputed elections in 2002, and there was an overwhelming need to build capacity in the environmental sector. This provided the impetus for me to bite the bullet. It was really just saying, “I’m setting up an organization that will continue the work we’ve started.” That was Blue Ventures. It kicked off the day I left university.
Why did you decide to set up a tourism business to fund conservation programs, rather than just start a conservation organization?
Having the idea was one thing, but finding the means to finance the vision was a whole new challenge. No donor or philanthropic foundation in their right mind would give a 23-year-old support for this kind of vision. So by default I had to look at entrepreneurship. And the solution was there all along. Those expeditions I’d been running were incredible opportunities for people from all walks of life to learn about the ocean, to experience new cultures and the enormous challenges of making conservation work on the ground. We had a business opportunity in our hands. So Blue Ventures Expeditions went live with £500 from my student overdraft, and the business was born.
Since then, we’ve welcomed hundreds of volunteers every year to our field programs around the world. These volunteers contribute to the running costs of our conservation work. They learn to dive with us, play a key role collecting data underwater and participate in our research and outreach work. Crucially, they also provide year-round financial sustainability to the organization, helping keep the lights on as we support a global team of more than 100 conservationists.
Any profits we make get reinvested in the charity, strengthening our conservation programs. It’s this social business that’s provided the catalyst for all our conservation work. We’ve expanded our reach beyond Madagascar — to Malaysia, Fiji and Belize — and we’re launching new country programs later this year.
How does the tourism enterprise work?
We accept volunteers who want to come and learn about conservation. Say you want a career break, or you want to learn to scuba dive for six weeks, or reboot your career in conservation or development. We even get families looking for a new experience. Each expedition lasts six weeks and involves a series of intensive training programs in diving, marine science and underwater surveying. You then live and work alongside our conservation staff, getting hands-on experience of the issues that we confront on a daily basis, in incredibly remote settings.
Another great thing is the network Blue Ventures has formed. We have an inspiring community of more than 2,000 alumni around the world, all of whom have lived and worked with us for extended periods of time and are very close to the spirit and culture of the enterprise.
Your view of marine conservation today must have been very different 11 years ago.
Absolutely. By approaching conservation as an entrepreneur, the challenges and limitations of “conventional” funding models are made very apparent to us. Marine reserves — areas of ocean protected from fishing, within which ecosystems can recover and help rebuild and replenish fisheries — are the end goal for any marine conservationist. They’re our currency. And given the threats our seas are facing — from overfishing and pollution to climate change — science tells us that we need to be setting aside about 30% of our seas within these marine reserves if we’re to have any hope of safeguarding our seas from the soaring stresses that humankind is unleashing.
But we have some serious problems in reaching that 30% target. Firstly, these conservation zones are typically funded by donors or governments in short-term project cycles, with no real hope of attaining financial sustainability for the protected area. Compounding this is the issue of scale: despite tireless efforts and commitment from thousands of conservationists and marine park managers working for this cause from the Arctic to the Southern Ocean, at best we’re fully protecting barely 1% of our seas. Worse still, the funding available for conservation isn’t growing in any significant way
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