Recent thinking on fisheries governance and marine and aquatic conservation suggests that interventions with a narrow focus on improving conservation and resource management are unlikely to have significant impact on poverty reduction and food security. Both development and conservation organisations have responded by using more inclusive frameworks such as the sustainable livelihoods approach to structure their policies and actions, without, however being able to show conclusive evidence of lasting impact. Moreover, most of what is known about the use of approaches linking fisheries governance and poverty reduction is limited to programs led by major bilateral and multi-lateral organisations - civil society initiatives and private sector investments in the sector have been largely overlooked.

Our research aimed to fill this gap by identifying and assessing initiatives that seek to achieve poverty reduction through actions on marine and aquatic conservation (e.g. recovery of endangered species and habitats, management of fisheries or development of aquaculture). We also searched for projects with conservation as a primary objective, but which also claimed to have poverty reduction benefits. We used email questionnaires, telephone interviews, literature review, manual searches of project reports, databases and websites, and direct consultations with stakeholders to get an overview of recent and on-going activities in this field. The search covered all continents, included all sectors in the coastal zone and inland waters economy (that is, was not limited to any particular type or scale of fishery or aquaculture) and was carried out in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese. From an initial database of 88 relevant cases, we were able to select 61 cases with sufficient information to allow for further analysis and assessment. The resulting sample provides a picture of initiatives around the world, from large-scale projects involving intergovernmental organizations and international NGOs, to small scale local initiatives involving civil society organizations, local government and private sector enterprises.

As most projects integrating conservation and development are recent or ongoing, impact assessments are generally lacking. We therefore focused on characterising the intervention logic, using a simple framework that considers three main dimensions of poverty: income and asset poverty, vulnerability, and marginalization or social exclusion.

Most initiatives (34 of 61) addressed income and asset poverty through building and securing natural assets – conserving fish stocks and marine/aquatic habitats and/or enhancing aquaculture. Improving people’s access to technology, markets, livelihood diversification and small business development was the second most important intervention area. A small proportion of initiatives focussed on building other assets such as human capital (e.g. skills and education). The number of projects using vulnerability reduction or social inclusion as main entry points was lower (10 and 5 respectively). This shows that, despite a substantial rhetorical shift, interventions are still overwhelmingly concerned with ecological sustainability and some economic dimensions of sustainability. Social sustainability, vulnerability and resilience are still less commonly addressed.

Our analysis also revealed that interventions were concerned largely with resource users, rather than other actors in the value-chain, such as post-harvest workers, trade intermediaries and consumers, including poor people who are nutritionally dependent on marine resources. The majority of initiatives were led and implemented by non-governmental and civil society organizations (48 of 61), with private sector involved in only a small portion (5 of 61). Finally, initiatives targeting markets tended to focus on international trade rather than on strengthening local markets.

Building other assets required for sustainable livelihoods is a potential niche for concerted actions between donors, development and conservation organisations. For example, initiatives addressing the particular health and educational needs of mobile fishing communities or developing financial services for fisherfolks that lack land as collateral. Investments in reducing vulnerability and promoting social inclusion of marginalized communities could also benefit fisheries sustainability. Mechanisms include developing village-level climate adaptation and disaster response plans, developing weather index-linked insurance products for small-scale fish farmers, strengthening institutions to promote access to justice and conflict resolution or assisting women to realize their rights. Conservation NGOs could link more effectively with private sector actors who have experience in developing and delivering the financial and social services outlined above and with development organizations that have experience of addressing poverty reduction and food security in other sectors. There is a global requirement to strengthen the capacity of conservation and fishery-sector organizations to deal with development issues.

The research formed part of an ‘Oceans search’ conducted by the Rockefeller Foundation, which aimed to identify potential solutions to reduce poverty and vulnerability through marine conservation actions. Reports from this project will become available shortly from the Rockefeller Foundation website

Anne Delaporte, Dr. Denis Hellebrandt and Dr. Edward H. Allison are based at the University of East Anglia.

Map: Initiatives supporting food security and/or poverty reduction through aquatic conservation. n=61, number of countries represented=34. Thanks to Batchgeo online software. Credit: Allison et al. 2011.