Alasdair Harris: How Can Coastal Conservation Save Marine Life And Fishing Practices?

Jun 25, 2021

Part 3 of TED Radio Hour episode: An SOS From The Ocean

In 1998, Alasdair Harris went to Madagascar to research coral reefs. He's worked there ever since. He explains the true meaning of conservation he learned from the island's Indigenous communities.

About Alasdair Harris

Alasdair Harris is a marine biologist and the founder of the organization Blue Ventures. His organization seeks to catalyze and sustain locally-led marine conservation in coastal communities around the world.

His work focuses on rebuilding tropical fisheries and working with coastal people to increase their sources of income.

Harris holds a PhD in tropical marine ecology, and an honorary doctorate of science from the University of Edinburgh.

This segment of TED Radio Hour was produced by Matthew Cloutier and edited by Sanaz Meshkinpour. You can follow us on Twitter @TEDRadioHour and email us at

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit


On the show today - an SOS from the ocean. And Ayana's recommendations are mainly for people living in developed, wealthier countries, not for island and coastal nations that depend on the ocean for their food and their livelihoods, like Madagascar.

ALASDAIR HARRIS: Madagascar's the epicenter of global biodiversity. It's one of the hottest of the hot global biodiversity hot spots. It's vast. It's - there are very few roads.

ZOMORODI: This is Alasdair Harris. He's a marine biologist who spent most of his career on the southern coast of the country.

HARRIS: And when there are no roads, of course, people are really, really dependent on natural resources for food, for income, for identity. The Vezo people of southern Madagascar believe that they came from the union of a mermaid called Ampelamananisa and a fisherman. And that accounts for their knowledge of the tides and the seas and why they're such staggeringly good fishermen.

Malagasy seafarers will sail vessels with no lights, no sounders, no engines, no GPS. They'll navigate the most complex barrier and fringing reef systems with Austral swells and incredibly dangerous tides blindfolded almost, except for the stars at nighttime. So when we talk about helping fishermen and women, often, it's not a question of finding something else to do. Fishing is what they do. Fishing is how they define themselves. It's their identity.

ZOMORODI: Over the years, threats like industrial fishing and climate change jeopardized that identity. Reefs once teeming with marine life were on the verge of collapsing. So in 1998, Alasdair Harris arrived - an eager, young marine biologist with a big idea to save both the reefs and traditional fishing practices. Alasdair continues his story from the TED stage.


HARRIS: I first landed on the island of Madagascar two decades ago on a mission to document its marine natural history. I was mesmerized by the coral reefs I explored and certain I knew how to protect them because science provided all the answers. Close areas of the reef permanently. Coastal fishers simply needed to fish less.

I approached elders in the village of Andavadoaka and recommended that they close off the healthiest and most diverse coral reefs to all forms of fishing to form a refuge to help stocks recover because, as the science tells us, after five or so years, fish populations inside those refuges would be much bigger, replenishing the fished areas outside, making everybody better off. That conversation didn't go so well.

We were laughed out of the room.

ZOMORODI: Were you literally laughed out of the room?

HARRIS: It was considered - yeah. Of course, it was utterly naive, and it bore no account of the economic reality that they faced, which is fishing from one day to the next or what those people would do while we're waiting for those stocks to recover.

ZOMORODI: OK, so here you come, Englishman going to the elders of these fishing communities with your grand plans - and just to be clear, like, what exactly were you suggesting?

HARRIS: Well, we know that when we safeguard and set aside certain areas of ocean, perhaps 10%, 20%, 30% of the ocean, within what we call a refuge, a marine reserve, a protected area, amazing things can happen. The life that's closed off within that reserve will grow. It will reproduce. It will eventually start to throw out much bigger fish, juveniles, larvae into the more fished areas outside and help regenerate those areas as well as rebuild those fisheries. So my initial idea was to work with communities to zone off areas of these reefs as these permanent marine reserves. Of course, the hubris involved in this - the hubris involved in a 20-year-old going to Madagascar with a view to doing something about coral reef conservation beggars belief, I appreciate that.

ZOMORODI: So they didn't go for the idea because you didn't really consider their day-to-day reality. Like, even if it was a great idea, they have to feed their families, like, today, right? Did their situation surprise you?

HARRIS: The scale of it was very shocking to me. And seeing children in fishing communities go hungry at the same time as foreign industrial boats are fishing with impunity offshore - and this is going on around coasts like Madagascar and low-income tropical coastal developing states year in, year out.

ZOMORODI: OK, so you have this initial setback, a bit of humiliation, but then you come up with a new idea. Well, not exactly a new idea - really more a new framing, right?

HARRIS: Absolutely.


HARRIS: That initial rejection taught me that conservation is, at its core, a journey in listening deeply, to understand the pressures and realities that communities face through their dependence on nature. This idea grew into an organization that brought a new approach to ocean conservation by working to rebuild fisheries with coastal communities. Then, as now, the work started by listening, and what we learned astonished us. Back in the dry south of Madagascar, we learned that one species was immensely important for villagers - this remarkable octopus.

The day octopus - octopus cyanea, it's called - a hugely charismatic species. But it's a very lucrative fishery, particularly for women in these coastal communities. And it grows exponentially once it's settled on the coral reef. And so we went back with another proposal, which was - how about we just start with maybe 10% of the fishing ground, but only for one species and only for six months? We think you're going to see some pretty explosive results.


HARRIS: The community thought so, too, opting to close a small area of reef to octopus fishing temporarily, using a customary social code, invoking blessings from the ancestors to prevent poaching. When that reef reopened to fishing six months later, none of us were prepared for what happened next. Catches soared, with men and women landing more and bigger octopus than anyone had seen for years. Neighboring villages saw the fishing boom and drew up their own closures, spreading the model virally along hundreds of miles of coastline. When we ran the numbers, we saw that these communities, among the poorest on Earth, had found a way to double their money in a matter of months by fishing less.

One closure became three closures and then five. And fast-forward and we've seen hundreds and hundreds along thousands of kilometers of coastline. And we've studied the impacts of these closures, and they've led to really important and significant increases in catches, more and larger animals that mean higher incomes for these communities. So it's been a real fisheries management success entirely from the bottom up, and it's gone to about a dozen countries now.

ZOMORODI: So these closures, then, is this the way forward for conservation in these fishing communities?

HARRIS: Well, that in and of itself is not necessarily a conservation effort. That's just focusing on those target fisheries. But I guess you could liken it to a catalyst that has enabled us to then revisit those first conversations about, well, how about we close off those areas now, now that we know what can happen?

ZOMORODI: So is it kind of like bridging the needs and the rights of the local people with the desires of the scientists and conservationists?

HARRIS: That's a really good question. I guess we're trying to address what we might call conservation's people problem. So the world I work in has an ugly history of conflict and human rights abuses, which have often set people and conservation against one another. Now, of course, that's really not OK, but it's also a massive paradox because fishermen and -women and conservationists really want the same thing - a healthy and diverse ocean.


HARRIS: The real magic went beyond profit. Leaders from Andavadoaka joined forces with two dozen neighboring communities to establish a vast conservation area along dozens of miles of coastline. They outlawed fishing with poison and mosquito nets and set aside permanent refuges around threatened coral reefs and mangroves, including - to my astonishment - those same sites that I'd flagged just two years earlier, when my evangelism for marine protection was so roundly rejected. They created a community-led protected area, a democratic system for local marine governance that was totally unimaginable just a few years earlier. And they didn't stop there. Within five years, they'd secured legal rights from the state to manage over 200 square miles of ocean, eliminating destructive industrial trawlers from the waters.

ZOMORODI: So I guess to go back to your original hope, Alasdair, when you first arrived in southern Madagascar, in addition to better fishing, are the reefs also healing?

HARRIS: Well, we've helped those fishermen monitor those sites with scuba, and every year, the reefs are getting healthier. The resident biomass, the sheer quantity of fish in the water, has got greater. And it's become a really important scientific reference site that's demonstrating the power of locally led marine conservation, not just for fisheries but now also for that broader objective of ecosystem conservation. But we've got to a place that we could never have got to had we not put the interests of those communities first.


ZOMORODI: That's Alasdair Harris. He's a marine biologist and the executive director of Blue Ventures. You can learn more at And you can watch his full talk at

On the show today - an SOS from the ocean. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Stay with us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.