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Western Indian Ocean communities play vital role in conservation

Posted on 24 July 2014

An international team of researchers led by the University of York has carried out the first assessment of community-led marine conservation in the Western Indian Ocean.

Globally around 500 million people are dependent on coral reefs for food or income. Community managed protected areas are vital for protecting fisheries and safeguarding marine biodiversity. (Credit: Blue Ventures / Garth Cripps)

The results, reported in the journal PLOS ONE, point to a revolution in the management of marine protected areas, with almost half of the sites – more than 11,000 km² – in the region now under local community stewardship.

Marine protected areas (MPAs) are zones of the seas and coasts designed to protect wildlife from damage and disturbance and managed typically by governments rather than by local communities. They are rapidly increasing in number as countries rush to meet international conservation commitments.

Lead author Steve Rocliffe, a PhD researcher with York’s Environment Department, said: “MPAs are vital tools for marine conservation but often fall short of their potential and can have negative impacts on local fishing communities.

“Against this backdrop, we’re seeing coastal communities across a vast swathe of the Indian Ocean taking more responsibility for their resources by setting up conservation zones known as ‘locally managed marine areas’ or LMMAs.

“LMMAs put people at the centre: it’s the fishers themselves who are making the management decisions, based on their needs, their priorities, and their traditional ecological knowledge.”

The study, which covers a region of 11 coastal and island states stretching from Somalia in the north to South Africa in the south, was supported by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The inventory, which is a collaboration between the University of York, Blue Ventures Conservation and CORDIO, an East African research organisation, summarises information on 62 local initiatives and 74 MPAs, providing agencies, researchers and government officials with an important baseline against which to evaluate future efforts to expand marine conservation in the region.

The researchers assessed LMMAs in terms of geography, numbers, size and governance structures, comparing them with areas under government stewardship and evaluating their potential contributions towards Convention on Biodiversity targets to effectively conserve 10 per cent of marine and coastal ecological regions by 2020.

Dr Julie Hawkins, from York’s Environment Department, said: “LMMAs have proven to be a cost-effective, scaleable, resilient and more socially acceptable alternative to more traditional ‘top-down’ methods of marine resource management. They have also shown promise as a means to safeguard food security, address coastal poverty, and help coastal communities to adapt to climate change.”

Shawn Peabody of Blue Ventures Conservation, added: “We found that although locally managed marine areas are hampered by underdeveloped legal structures and enforcement mechanisms, they are emerging as a tool of choice in mainland Tanzania and Madagascar, where they cover 3.5 and 4.2 times more area than centrally managed MPAs respectively.

“The way forward now is to establish a network through which LMMA practitioners can share experiences and best practice.”

Further information:

  • Lead author Steve Rocliffe from the University of York can be contacted via email:
  • The Environment Department at the University of York conducts world-leading research on topics of global environmental importance. The impact of its research in ecology and environmental science is ranked by the Times Higher Education as second in the UK and 17th in the world. Its research is highly interdisciplinary across the natural and social sciences, ranging from atmospheric chemistry to environmental economics and policy analysis. Its funding comes from numerous sources, including research councils, national and international government agencies, charities and industry. More information at
  • Blue Ventures is an award-winning marine conservation organisation, dedicated to working with local communities to conserve threatened marine environments. Their acclaimed conservation programmes work with some of the world's poorest coastal people to develop conservation and poverty alleviation initiatives that protect biodiversity and coastal livelihoods. Amongst other achievements, Blue Ventures has created the largest community-managed marine reserves in the Indian Ocean, and pioneered ambitious research programmes tackling critical issues facing marine biodiversity conservation and resource-dependent coastal communities. More information about Blue Ventures’ work supporting community-based marine conservation in the western Indian Ocean can be found at
  • A gallery of images for the media to download to accompany this news release is available at
  • The article ‘Towards a network of locally managed marine areas (LMMAs) in the Western Indian Ocean’ is published in PLOS ONE at
  • The authors are Steve Rocliffe and Julie Hawkins, University of York; Shawn Peabody, formerly with Blue Ventures Conservation; and Melita Samoilys, CORDIO East Africa, Kenya.
  • Coastal Oceans Research and Development – Indian Ocean (CORDIO) works on marine and coastal ecosystems in the Western Indian Ocean (WIO). We specialise in generating knowledge to find solutions to the challenges and problems facing coastal people and marine environments. Our research and conservation work addresses problems that are linked in the WIO:  limited resources and habitat; high dependency on natural resources and food insecurity; growing population and poverty; low education and wealth; and weak governance. We emphasise linked solutions to these problems: ecological and social resilience; adaptive capacity; environmental conservation; sustainable use; education, policy and governance; investment in livelihoods and improved capacity.
  • NERC is the largest funder of environmental science in the UK. We invest £330m in cutting-edge research, training and knowledge transfer in the environmental sciences. Our scientists study and monitor the whole planet, from pole to pole, and from the deep Earth and oceans to the edge of space. We address and respond to critical issues such as environmental hazards, resource security and environmental change. Through collaboration with other science disciplines, with UK business and with policy-makers, we make sure our knowledge and skills support sustainable economic growth and public wellbeing - reducing risks to health, infrastructure, supply chains and our changing environment. More information at
  • The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funds research into the big social and economic questions facing us today. We also develop and train the UK’s future social scientists. Our research informs public policies and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. Most importantly, it makes a real difference to all our lives. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government. For more information about the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) visit
  • More information on the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation at

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