Fishing Forward

An Interview with Dr. Steve Box, Vice President of Fish Forever, on building networks, measuring impact, promoting transparency, and thinking bigger

  • Larissa Hotra
November 19, 2019

Fish Forever, which kicked off in 2014, has now moved into its second programmatic phase. What does that mean?

It means a lot! Fish Forever’s first phase was a mass prototype designed to test whether rights-based management and fully-protected reserves, delivered using Pride (Rare’s behavior change method), would change a community’s behaviors and provide effective protection for fish. We implemented it across 260 communities, clustered into 41 sites in three countries, and worked to identify commonalities across different geographies, cultures, and coastal fisheries, as well as the gaps and the unexpected. The results showed significant biological, ecological, and social change and proof that a community-based approach to fisheries management is essential to solving overfishing.

So, based on this evidence, the natural next step was to focus on scaling this effort. Phase two, therefore, is about creating networks that match the scale required to manage these fisheries appropriately—unprecedented ecological networks of marine reserves, social networks of local governments and their communities co-managing coastal resources and leading by example, and political networks of subnational, provincial, state authorities executing against the same plan and vision for coastal fisheries reform.


If you were to describe Fish Forever to a layperson, what would you say?

The simple answer is, it’s not really about the fish. It’s about people, coastal communities, and fishing as a livelihood, a job, and a way of life. It’s about a sector that influences society but goes unrecognized. The misconception is commercial and industrial fishing make up the lion’s share of global fish catch. We at Rare know it doesn’t. Small-scale fisheries provide food for the world. They provide jobs. They underpin cultures. But if provincial governors, national ministers, buyers, fishers and their communities don’t recognize their critical role in the global economy, they won’t be motivated to protect and manage these critical assets.

Fish Forever is about building a social movement to prioritize better management of coastal fisheries. And it’s about converting that social movement into a political movement so that local to national governments and international bodies recognize the real importance and value of these fisheries and feature the sector prominently in development and policy-making. When this global community correctly values the fisheries, the conversation changes from one anchored in concern over how we conserve reefs and mangroves to one that boasts how engaged communities and active local governments can both protect and sustainably use these resources.


What has been most inspiring to you about the program’s evolution? The biggest challenge(s)?

So much has inspired me! I’m inspired by seeing so many people engaging with us and committing to solving overfishing. I’m thrilled by the speed at which fishers and local leaders are joining Fish Forever, based on the positive changes and momentum they see in other constituencies. And I’m moved by the global range of deeply personal stories of people touched by the program in measurable ways.

Change is inherently difficult. As a behavior change organization, we walk into any change knowing that change is hard and sustaining it can be harder. We recognize that a truly sustainable solution exists at an entirely different scale—in our case, at a sub-national level—and that to accomplish this while maintaining efficacy and impact requires coordinating more partners, more leaders, more coastal communities, and more coastal area. It also forces us to ask tough questions, such as how do we reach more people? How do we balance the desire to solve local problems but impact globally? How do we know we have been successful?


Ahh, the question of success. Let’s get to that in a moment. You’re regularly asked to describe Fish Forever’s reach and impact—at local, national, and global levels—and subsequently, the ability to scale the program. At this point in program implementation, how would you answer?

Fish Forever is now working in more communities than ever before, engaging hundreds of local governments and protecting tens of thousands of hectares of vital coastal ocean waters. We’ve built a robust global network of over 100 partners, a training hub, provided core tools, training materials, and capacity, and shared services for science and tech. And now, we’re starting to see a rapid acceleration in reach and adoption.

We know this because phase two emphasizes transparency and real-time data tracking. We’ve invested in digital technology to track Fish Forever’s implementation, milestones, and metrics alongside our footprint and reach. Our goal is to publicize this data so that anyone can access and follow our progress. We’re committed to publicly tracking progress to ensure program transparency and accountability, which I don’t think has been seen in this way before.

The mission now is to show that Fish Forever isn’t just a hyper-local solution in one community or area, but is relevant for networks of communities and appropriate for multiple provinces in multiple countries. And that governments around the world recognize this approach to community-based management as a viable and replicable solution that they can implement at a significant spatial scale. To me, that’s the proof point in 2022.


Back to success. What does overall program success look like to you? How about success at ecological, social, and political levels?

(Laughing) Ok, success is such a loaded word. We have to break it down into stages.

Success in the water is to stop taking fish out faster than they can recover, to have a sustainable fish catch and protect critical habitat and marine biodiversity at the same time. Success socially is when communities can use their access to these incredibly rich resources to build prosperity. And success at the political level is when these communities are no longer explicitly or unintentionally disenfranchised, and instead recognized and valued for their real worth.

Overall, success is that I can visit a fishing community and see that they feel tightly connected to their coastal resources as guardians and stewards, recognized for their essential role in managing it, and can provide for their families. And ultimately, that they are benefitting from the surrounding wealth of resources and using them to ensure a better future for fish and people alike.