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Follow the Data Podcast: Community-Based Conservation: Local Approach with a Global Impact

In part-two of a two-part episode, Follow the Data features a conversation between Dr. Steve Box, Vice President of Fish Forever at Rare and Melissa Wright of Bloomberg Philanthropies Environment team. Listen to part-one here. 

The Bloomberg Philanthropies Vibrant Oceans Initiative is the largest philanthropic commitment to internationally reform small-scale fisheries management. At last month’s 5th Annual Our Ocean Conference in Indonesia, UN Special Envoy on Climate Action Michael R. Bloomberg announced the expansion of the Vibrant Oceans Initiative, dedicating $86 million to support coastal communities across 10 countries, including Australia, Fiji, Indonesia, Tanzania, Peru and the US. The announcement marks the second phase of the initiative, expanding efforts into new countries.

Rare is one of Bloomberg Philanthropies Vibrant Oceans Initiative partners, specializing in local fishing reforms, targeting some of the 12 million small-scale fishers that operate 15km from shore. Rare’s Fish Forever program will continue to encourage community-led solutions to revitalize marine habitats, regenerate fish populations and help coastal communities reimagine their future.

Rare’s people-centered, participatory approach to conservation empowers local leaders and elevates the role of fishers, farmers and other resource users in local decision-making and governance. This bottom-up approach is buoyed by partnerships with officials at all levels of government—from mayors to ministers—as well as public and private institutions, universities, NGOs and other organizations capable of removing barriers and paving the way for community-led solutions.

Dr. Box has dedicated his career to the study and protection of reefs and fish populations – he and Melissa share stories from communities working to improve fishing practice, the impact of destructive fishing practices, and proven solutions.

Be sure to subscribe to Follow the Data so you don’t miss part two of their conversation.

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We hope you enjoy this episode. Follow us on Twitter @BloombergDotOrg for information about our next episode. Until then, keep following the data!



KATHERINE OLIVER: Welcome to Follow the Data, I’m your host, Katherine Oliver.

This episode is part two of a two-part feature. If you haven’t already, you can listen to part one by visiting iTunes, Stitcher, or SoundCloud.

At last month’s Our Ocean Conference in Indonesia, UN Special Envoy for Climate Action Michael R. Bloomberg announced additional support for oceans.

For Bloomberg, this investment marks an important 86 million dollar expansion of Bloomberg’s Vibrant Oceans Initiative. Since 2011, Bloomberg Philanthropies has invested 69 million dollars in ocean protection efforts. Launched in 2014 at Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Vibrant Oceans Initiative has supported key partners, Oceana and Rare, in reforming both local and industrial fishing practices and protecting critical marine areas in top fishing nations – Brazil, Chile, and the Philippines – where partners have seen 390 percent growth in coastal fish populations at Phase One sites and where more than one million square miles have been protected. The additional funds will support Phase Two of the initiative.

In the second part of their conversation, Dr. Steve Box, Senior Vice President of Fish Forever at Rare and Melissa Wright from the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Environment team discuss decentralizing decision-making around fisheries, local leadership, and how to shift norms to ensure future food security.

Rare is working with local governments, organizations and residents in coastal communities to implement more sustainable fishing management systems with local fishers in mind. Reforms include exclusive fishing rights for coastal fishers in exchange for creating protected areas where fish are able to reproduce unharmed.

There are 12 million small-scale fishers that operate within 15 km from shore –concentrated largely on the coasts of the developing world. Fishers are catching relatively small amounts of fish destined mainly for local markets. Their gear is basic and their resources are limited, but their numbers are enormous, with 90 percent of the world’s fisher and fish worker population operating in small-scale fishing, and about half of the world’s total fish catch coming from these fishers. Stack them up, and their impact on catch statistics is massive — if measured fully.

By empowering communities with control over their fisheries, Rare seeks to inspire stewardship to manage local waters more sustainably, and provide a successful community-focused model for nations and the world. Listen to their conversation now.

MELISSA WRIGHT: Thanks for being here, Dr. Box. May I call you Steve?

BOX: You may call me Steve, and thank you very much for the invitation.

WRIGHT: We know each other well. We’ve been working together for a couple of years now on the Vibrant Oceans Initiative Program with Rare as one of our lead partners. It’s been fantastic to see the progress that Rare has made in protecting coastal fisheries, and I’m excited to dig into the data a little bit more today.

BOX: Me too. I’m all about the numbers.

WRIGHT: You and I were in Indonesia together in January of this year, and we visited an area called Wakatobi, and we had the privilege of sitting in on a meeting of the local Fisher’s Forum, and they talked a lot about how they had worked with Rare on establishing protected areas, and areas that no fishing was allowed, to allow for one of the key species to rebound, which is that the rabbit fish.

What I took away from that meeting was really the sense of cohesion among the fisher community, the women, and other people who participate in the processing of fish were also participating in the meeting, and I love being able to look around the building that we were in and see the posters of the different species, and they actually brought their own data.  They were so proud to show the progress that they made, and the data that was ticking upward for that species.

That’s just one experience that I’ve had in witnessing what Rare does on the ground and in the water. Do you have a favorite story, or an anecdote about an impactful Rare community?

STEVE BOX: Absolutely. In fact, there’s so many stories. At the moment, we’re working with over 250 communities, and everyone has a story like the one you saw in Wakatobi.  Actually, just to build on that story, the rabbit fish, which is culturally important—it’s kind of the equivalent of the Thanksgiving turkey.  It’s used in ceremonies, but it’s also really important food fish.

They’ve chosen that as the focal species for management.  They had set up these fully protected reserves that they managed locally, and they were seeing results happen really quickly because that type of fish grows very quickly.  It reproduces a lot, and so they were seeing the benefits of their own efforts within a couple of years, and that was really circling back into the community.  So, the women we were talking to were saying how they were seeing improved sales.  They able to sell more fish, they were making more money, and again, they were really starting to see the benefits of their own activity.  I just got back from the Philippines and visiting some of the communities there.  We went to community called pillar, and we weren’t looking specifically at the fishery in that case.

We were looking at savings clubs that have been set up, and we were talking with this incredible group of 25 women who were working together to save money from the fishery, so when their husbands and they themselves were going out fishing and then and then selling the fish, instead of using all of the money on day-to-day expenses, they’d come together and form the savings club which could just save a portion for the future, and it was incredibly inspiring to listen to the stories of what they were saving for, and how the club, through that social network, was also helping them if there was an emergency.

One lady was talking about how a house had burned down and she was living in the church, and the group was helping her to rebuild her life, and it was just this incredible impactful story.  I would say that’s kind of a core piece of what Rare does.  It’s not just about the fish.  It’s not just about coral reefs.  It’s about the people that depend on them and how do you build a solution that really helps their local economy?

It helps the sense of social cohesion, how well they work together, how they can solve these incredibly complex problems by working together, by shifting from thinking individually or just about your own household to thinking about the community and what’s collectively good.

WRIGHT: Not to go from what’s going well to what’s going terribly, but I have heard from some of these fishing communities just the trouble that some of these coastal areas are facing, whether it’s from overfishing, destructive fishing, from coastal pollution, there are just lots of threats to the natural resource, but also to the livelihoods of these people. Tell me a little bit more about the kind of crisis that coastal fishers are facing and what the opportunities are to scale the type of work that Rare is doing.

BOX: Now that’s a great question because coastal areas and the oceans in general are under an incredible amount of pressure. There was a study released very recently, last week actually, explaining how nearly all of the world’s oceans are now impacted by human activities, including overfishing, the effects of climate change, coastal pollution, and coastal communities, the ones that are living right on the shore are right at the apex of the problem.

They have the impacts of pollution right off the shore both, from agricultural runoff or sediment, or sewage, and they’re also fishing issues, so the overlapping of industrial fishing, these bigger boats that are coming closer to shore, and essentially stripping out coastal resources, their own fishing pressure that’s cumulative on top of that, and all of those issues are degrading some of the most critical habitats in the sea, coral reefs, sea grass beds, mangrove forests.  Without those habitats, those essential fish habitats, you start losing the productivity of our oceans.

And that is the kind of the gloomy future unless we solve that problem, and because coastal communities are right in the intersection of those problems and the use of those resources, it’s an obvious place to start.  They’ve got to be the source of that solution.  So, to kind of tick off some of the ways you could solve that, separating out industrial commercial fishing from coastal community-based fisheries, so can you keep these commercial boats out from coastal waters, and really prioritize the communities for access to and use of those coastal resources, and with that right, bring a tradeoff that you get the right, but you also have to have stewardship, you have to be managing these areas.  You cannot just exclude industrial fishing and then boost small-scale community-based fisheries to occupy that space. You’ve got to be building the relevant management with those communities to protect, conserve, and sustainably use those resources, so there’s an opportunity there. Then by building that management group, the decision-making bodies within local communities and local governments, you can also start using that same community cohesion decision-making to solve some of the other issues.

Could you expand that to solve land use issues for sedimentation? Could you expand that to be more aware of direct impacts into the sea, such as plastics and solid waste disposal of our sewage? So, we’re not working on those quite yet, but the building of capacity within those communities linking the priorities of coastal communities to local government and then linking those to national government can really start shaping how we can solve all of these problems.

WRIGHT: One of the innovative new ways that Rare is working is by beginning to link mayors of coastal communities, and began to organize their activities around coastal protection and prioritizing small-scale fishery improvement.  I loved our trip to Honduras when we got to meet one of the mayors and sit in his office and hear about what he was doing for his community.

And one of the things that he emphasized was building the capacity and educating the youth, and bringing them into the community, problem-solving set – rather than just relying on national government to solve or, you know, private sector to come in with a solution, but really thinking about how the people in those communities can learn more about what they have and have more contact with the governance aspect of coastal resource management. Can you say a little bit more? We love mayors here at Bloomberg Philanthropies. Can you say more about what your plans are for, kind of building up local leadership?

BOX: Absolutely, the role of mayors has been critical to the success so far, but it’s also fundamental to where we’re going in the future. The mayor that we met in Honduras, Mayor Spurgeon Miller, he’s the mayor of a small island called Guanaja. It’s off the north Caribbean coast of Honduras, and they have a population of about 8,000 people.

I’ve been working with him previously, and when I joined Rare and really saw the power of connecting communities really strongly to local leadership building up the capacity of local governments, of building leadership within the mayors to solve and really address these overfishing problems and protection of coral reefs, I introduced that idea back to Mayor Miller, and said we should think about forming a network here.  Your leadership is incredible for your island.  You’ve started to really listen to the fishing communities, there were six different communities around this island.  You help them establish fully protected reserves.  You’ve banned plastics on the island, in terms of plastic bags and straws.  You are really trying to promote the island as a center for ecotourism, for green tourism, and green growth, and this is amazing, but you could be inspiring other mayors.

Could you now go forth and meet your colleagues and your peers and see if you can inspire change in the neighboring municipalities? And it was incredible to see him take up that challenge and go and do it, and now there is actually a network of Mayors across the North Shore of Honduras.  Now spreading into Guatemala, and they’ve all aligned on those priorities about listening to the needs of fishers about establishing fully protected reserves, giving rights to their fishers to fish in municipal waters forming local management.

It’s just this incredible spread of this idea, and this is exactly the same approach that Rare was taking in in the Philippines, a great area we’ve been working on is the Tañon Strait in Central Philippines, and again that was forming these networks of mayors to align these priorities.  So, it’s not just a solo effort, you’re not alone in leadership, but you’ve actually got a whole network of aligned leaders all moving in the same direction and that can become incredibly powerful at a national level when you have multiple mayors all saying this is a priority for my constituency.  This is why we’re doing it.  This is why it is part of our development plan at a local level.

There should also be part of the national development plan.  This should really reinforce that a provincial or state level and at a national level where we’re going as a country and, again, we’re really seeing that in the Philippines where the national development plan now highlights the importance of communities in solving overfishing issues of establishing managed access, so the way you manage coastal waters and reserves and really linking that to community empowerment, and that is embedded now in the national development plan of the country and you have these mayors reading in their approach going oh this is exactly what we’re doing.  So, it’s great to see that alignment between national policy and local implementation.

WRIGHT: And what types of things can national governments invest in to improve the livelihoods of coastal fishers?

BOX: So, I think one of the most important things that governments can be investing in immediately is actually good data. The small-scale fisheries, they’re only small in name. They’re an enormous productive sector of the economy globally, and they’ve been labeled small because the boats that are being used are smaller than the industrial and commercial fishing boats, but people may—and including national governments, may misconstrue that small means, well, less important, maybe it’s a little insignificant.  There is also that the idea of an artisanal fishery.  It sounds—

WRIGHT: Boutique.

BOX: Boutique, quaint, it doesn’t sound like it’s one of the most important suppliers of food for the world. That’s not what jumps to mind when someone says artisanal or small-scale fisheries. So, helping governments recognize that this is an incredibly important productive sector.

Having good fisher registration system so they know how many people are dependent on that resource, collecting good production data so they know how much fish is actually being extracted by that type of fishery and where it is going.  Is it feeding coastal communities? Is it feeding Inland or Highland communities? There’s an incredible trade in fish domestically and regionally that is all part of the informal economy or informal trading systems, so it’s never really recorded by governments.

Really emphasizing that they need to be collecting this type of data and that there’s now very simple ways to do that and then looking at how do your decentralize decision-making around fisheries? Again, a lot of effort in fisheries management has been centralized within national governments.  They’ve been prioritizing high-value commercial species like tuna and other things, and that makes a lot of sense.

There’s a lot of infrastructure in ports and big boats, so it’s an obvious place for governments to manage, but small scale fisheries, coastal fisheries require a different type of management.  It’s very hard to manage tens of thousands of communities, and millions of fishers from a central position, so recognizing that you can devolve management powers down to the local level, local governments and provincial or state governments, that’s a real priority.  You need to do that in order to solve the problem, and then recognizing that coastal fishers and their communities need explicit rights, so making policy commitments that you recognize this productive sector, they need rights of access.

Again, these communities are often some of the most disenfranchised or marginalized, both by geography and political voice because no one really knew they were the forgotten fisheries.  No one really knew how important those types of fisheries were.  Over the last 15 years there’s been a lot of information being collected by scientists doing catch reconstruction of all of these fisheries and working out quite how important and how valuable this sector is.  And to give you an example, globally, there’s an estimate that small scale fisheries, the unreported portion of that catch is about $10 billion a year that’s just not recorded.  So, it’s an incredible amount of money that’s just not included in national governments projections of GDP.

WRIGHT: Well, we spent a lot of time talking about small-scale fisheries and the impacts on local communities and the countries that they’re nested within. Talk to me a little bit more about the global impact of small-scale fishery’s recovery. How can this help meet the sustainable development goals or other global goals like the Paris Climate Agreement?

BOX: Small-scale fisheries are under-recognized globally as being a really important part of solving some of the critical challenges facing developing countries to help achieve the sustainable development goals. The Aichi targets, conventional biodiversity, and the reason why countries by addressing overfishing and small scale fisheries and really helping to solve this problem can contribute to their SDG targets, is because there are so many factors within a small scale fishery.

If you can reduce overfishing, enable fish to recover, you start to contribute to the goals of life in water you start to protect critical habitat, so you start contributing to your commitments under the Convention on Bio-diversity, but more than that, fish are an essential part of food security globally, especially in countries like Indonesia or the Philippines.  In Indonesia, 60% of animal protein comes from wild caught fish.  That’s an incredible amount of protein that the country requires just to feed its people.  And by not addressing overfishing, every year we have less fish to feed people.  So, you’ve got to invest in turning the tide on that overfishing problem for food supply.

But then in terms of employment, coastal fisheries employ about 85% of all fishers in the world.  So, in terms of employment far more important than commercial and industrial fisheries.  So, they’re catching about half of all the wild caught fish for human consumption.  They’re employing, in terms of fishing, but also in that post-harvest, drying, salting, selling, there’s about 110,000,000 people employed directly through small-scale fisheries.  So, just ignoring the importance of this means that the countries can’t solve some of their most basic sustainable development goals in terms of alleviating poverty, in terms of food supply, and then life in water.

Then stepping one step forward all of this economy or the majority of small scale fisheries sit in the informal economy.  Its cash based.  There are transactions that never get formally recorded, and the money isn’t hitting formal financial institutions, so again, it’s not counting to the GDP of the country because it’s not being formally registered.

If you could work on shifting communities into a more formal economy, enabling people to save, enabling people to take formal debt, and having that transaction recorded by local and national government that actually contributes to achieving sustainable development goals, as well giving people financial identity.

WRIGHT: Maybe we can close, and if you have any anecdote that you’d like to share that illustrates what Rare does in the world, I’d love to hear it.

BOX: So, imagine if you will, a couple of people in a small boat. They’ve gone out, they’ve been fishing all day. They’ve caught maybe 20, 30 pounds of fish and they’re bringing it back to shore and they’re selling it to the local buyer, and they’re being paid in cash, and that cash is supporting their home, their households, supporting the education of their children. It’s feeding their families.  They’re saving a little bit if they can to improve their house.

It’s exactly the same life as everyone else on the planet.  It’s the same concerns of how do we make enough money to feed ourselves? How do we make enough money for our families to really help the future of our children? How do we improve our lot in the world? The difference is that when those two people go out fishing, they have no certainty about what they’re going to catch.  They don’t know whether they are going to come home with five pounds of fish, no fish, 100 pounds of fish.  When most people around the world go to work, they know more or less what they’re going to earn at the end of the day.

I think one of the most important things for people to recognize in these types of fisheries is the uncertainty of going out, hunting essentially, you’re hunting fish, and you don’t really know what you’re going to catch, and that provides a lot of risk to the fishers themselves. That level of uncertainty means that people have to fish as hard as possible to catch as much fish as possible to secure their income for the day, for the week, and so I would say the most important part of Rare’s work is to give people greater certainty, enable them to be a part of a more secure future, give people rights so that they really take ownership of the problem, both individually and as a community that they’re involved in that solution.

When those two people in a boat are going fishing, they’re fishing in grounds that they know that that’s part of their community’s area, that reserve, that they are part of that protection that they were involved in protecting that not just for the amazing reef that may be below the water, but because they recognize that by protecting that area, that’s sustaining their future, that the fish that are growing under that protection will eventually spill over into their fishing grounds.  Being able to connect up that the individual actions of people in a community to protect areas to really recognize that when they’re fishing they have a responsibility not just to catch as much as possible, but actually to safeguard the future because if everyone takes everything today, then their children, their grandchildren will be in much worse financial and economic situations.

Rare can tell these stories, tell these narratives with communities, explaining their role, providing them the data and the evidence that they need to see that what they are doing,—the short-term sacrifices that they are making by not catching as much, by not fishing illegally, by not using destructive fishing gears that may catch more, but longer-term they’re causing irreparable harm to reefs and other areas, that they recognize that they’re all part of the solution, and that they are not just showing that themselves with their own actions, but they’re talking to their neighbors, they’re talking to their friends, they’re talking to other fishers, and they are saying, “I’m a responsible fisher. I do these four things that make me responsible.  You should too,” and shifting that social norm that it’s not acceptable to be a destructive fisher, that it’s not acceptable to fish undersize fish or to take pregnant crabs.  We can shift society so that everyone is reinforcing responsible behavior, that’s an incredible way of building a solution that will last.

WRIGHT: Well It’s a remarkable thing to see a solution like the one that Rare is spreading across the world work so well and so quickly.  We’re proud to be Rare’s partner and looking forward to visiting even more coastal communities and seeing the small-scale fishers in action.  Thanks for joining us.

BOX: Thank you so much, and obviously, the support of Bloomberg Philanthropies is fundamental to the work that we’re doing around the world. And we’re looking forward to working with you long into the future. Thank you.

OLIVER: We hope you enjoyed this episode of Follow the Data. Many thanks to Dr. Steve Box for joining us. Visit for more information.

If you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe to Follow the Data podcast. This episode was produced by Electra Colevas, Melissa Wright, Ivy Li, music by Mark Piro. Special thanks to Eric Sheppard.

As our founder Mike Bloomberg says, if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. So until next time, keep following the data. I’m Katherine Oliver, thanks for listening.