There are not, in fact, always more fish in the sea. That we have overfished our oceans to near the point of no return has been rehashed over and over now for years. But what is the solution besides stopping fishing entirely, putting millions of people out of work, and cutting off a vital food supply? Blue Ventures—an organization devoted to solving fisheries problems by creating a link between economic benefits of fishermen and conservation—thinks it has an answer. And so does the Buckminster Fuller Institute, which gave Blue Ventures its fourth-annual $100,000 prize for the Buckminster Fuller Challenge this weekend.
The BFI looks for organizations that embody the spirit of Fuller's work and worldview, to "make the world work for 100% of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or disadvantage of anyone." That is exactly what Blue Ventures does, says Alasdair Harris, the founder and research director: "The way we approach marine conservation is unusual.... It isn't just about setting up protected areas. It's about alleviation of poverty, empowering women, reducing gender inequity. All those things, from sex and reproductive health to education are directly relevant to conservation. We work in a multidisciplinary, holistic way."
Blue Ventures works by offering a variety of services to fishing communities in Madagascar that allow them to become less dependent on fishing. "It's not like you can say: 'Stop fishing, go and farm," says Harris. "There is absolutely nothing else." So Blue Ventures provides them with something else: aquaculture products that allow the fishermen to still use the sea for income, but means they don't have to fish. These projects include seaweed and the world's first community-run sea cucumber farm, an incredibly lucrative business given that sea cucumbers fetch high prices in Southeast Asia, where they're considered a powerful aphrodisiac.
Once the communities have alternative sources of income, they can more safely implement temporary closures of fishing grounds, which then results in more fruitful catches. "We've demonstrated to communities that conservation doesn't just help the fish, but it also makes them richer," says Harris. And when they realize that taking even relatively short breaks from fishing drastically improves the local octopus catch, the idea of conservation becomes more exciting: "When you can get a whole community rallied around protecting a resource, it breaks down the tragedy of the commons."
In addition to the economics, Blue Ventures also works in communities helping with education and reproductive health, because, as Harris says. "In many parts of the developing world, poverty is driven by an unmet
demand for family-planning services. It's a direct driver of
unsustainable resources." In Madagascar, the average birth rate is 6.7 children per woman. That's a lot of mouths to feed, which means a lot of extra fish to pull out of the ocean. In communities Blue Venture has worked in, they've increased the contraception prevalence rate from 8% to 42%.
Blue Ventures currently funds much of its operation through ecotourism; you can sign up to go work in a Blue Venture community via its website. It turns over about $300,000 a year, so the $100,000 from the BFI is going to be a gamechanger for the organization and the communities in which it works. The BFI also shortlisted FrontlineSMS which uses text messages to improve rural health in Africa; Participatory Mapping, which empowers tribes in the Congo to help map the rainforest; and Tara Akshar, a simple lesson plan which teaches Indian women basic math and reading skills in just 98 hours.
But at the end of an arduous judging process, the BFI found that Blue Ventures most embodied Fuller's spirit and his maxim to make the world work better, as fast as possible. Harris agrees, citing Fuller's advocacy of holisitic, systems-based thinking about the world: "Using this integrated approach that we bring can address conservation and community development much more effectively than in isolation. It's a really good example of a whole systems approach." But, he says, they still aren't using any geodesic domes.
Follow @fastcompany on Twitter.