In this issue of the Islandchief, we sat with ocean advocate, Ms.Shaha Hashim, Programme Manager, Blue Marine Foundation and Maldives Resilient Reefs. She reflects on her journey and shares her experiences with us. From her early days from school, Shaha talks about the importance of resilience, and how collaboration can play in enhancing momentum in achieving the climate action objectives and not giving up despite the odds.
1. Can you tell us about your journey to becoming a marine conservationist and programme manager at Blue Marine Foundation?
Growing up in Male’, I did not get many opportunities to explore the ocean. However, when I was in fifth grade, my primary school carried out a programme to teach every child to swim. Ever since my first swim, I have felt a special connection with the ocean. It was a place where I felt free and liberated. This affinity opened new doors for me. Soon I joined the school swimming team, and had the opportunity to go snorkelling in Kuda Bandos on one of the programmes. Little did I know back then that I was witnessing what our reefs looked like just before they suffered one of the worst coral bleaching events that killed more than 95% of our corals. I remember it being truly magical. The reef that looked so plain and scary from the surface was full of action, corals and fish of every shape and colour. There was so much life there I did not know where to look at or which was which. I was hooked, but I did not get to pursue this thrill until later in life. I started SCUBA diving recreationally as soon as I started working. Soon I was SCUBA diving almost every weekend and most of my holidays were spent volunteering with marine science and conservation projects. It was through these experiences that I began realizing the threats to our coral reefs, biodiversity and for us as Maldivians to have a safe future on our small islands. There was no holding me back from the ocean. I enrolled on short-term programmes where I gained technical knowledge and the more experience I gained, the more I wanted to be working in a job where I could pursue my passion and love for the ocean.
In 2016, I got the opportunity to join the grouper fishery and conservation project implemented by Blue Marine Foundation and the Maldives Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture, based in Laamu Atoll. It was a deep dive into marine conservation where I got to directly engage with fisherfolk on how the fishery has declined over time, see first-hand how this had affected grouper spawning aggregations and got to do some cool science on grouper maturity sizes in the Maldives. After the project concluded, I kept on working with Blue Marine Foundation and started developing projects to help gather more evidence and support for improved marine protection. The more knowledge and experience I gained, the more pressing and urgent it became for me to do everything I can to sustain our marine habitats and species and our way of life. In 2020, Blue Marine helped set up the local NGO, Maldives Resilient Reefs, which I am now heading. Today, we are a team of five Maldivians working on various projects related to marine science and conservation.
2. How did your experience in STEM fields contribute to your work in marine conservation?
Science provides the knowledge and tools in decision making for conservation. For example, the evidence we gathered in Laamu Atoll on the baseline status of coral reefs, seagrasses, mangroves, and grouper spawning aggregations was used to justify the protection of some of the critical biodiversity hotspots in the atoll. The evidence we gathered on maturity sizes for groupers in the Maldives helped increase the minimal landing size limit for some of the highly valued grouper species.
Advocacy and lobbying are also important if you are working in the STEM fields because the science needs to be understood by policy makers and the public. We use a variety of different science communication techniques. For example, our #FishForTomorrow campaign reached a large percentage of the Maldivian public through social media with interesting messages about vulnerable species on our reefs in a fun and engaging way. Just two months after the campaign, all parrotfish were declared protected in the Maldives and the campaign helped the public the understand the vital role of parrotfish for our reefs and islands in a changing climate.
3. What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a programme manager for Blue Marine Foundation, and how do you address them?
Conservation is never an easy job anywhere because you are trying to change the way something works to achieve the conservation goals. Undertaking research projects is the easy bit and what we usually have control over. The most challenging part is bringing about effective management which require a lot of time, effort and relationship building. I have faced many challenges along the way, but that is to be expected when you are trying to change the status quo. The important thing is to be guided by your goals, values, and scientific evidence. I step out of my comfort zone every day, but I have no choice to not do this if I want to help bring about effective change.
4. How do you involve and engage local communities in your conservation efforts, and why is this important?
Maldivians have been living on these islands for hundreds of years, if not thousands. The reason we have what we have today is because our forefathers passed them on to us. I believe that the local communities must be front and centre of the conservation decision making process because without their support, we would not have effective conservation. We can protect areas and introduce new fisheries management measures, but these would only be on paper if local communities are not involved throughout the decision-making process. We must change this.
Today’s generation have lost the connection to the ocean that our forefathers had because they do not get to spend as much time in the ocean. So, the first step is to get them to experience the ocean. Through our ‘Laamaseelu Farudhun’ citizen science programme, we teach the basic ecology of our marine habitats to young people in the communities. We train young Maldivians as citizen scientists on our projects so that they could get first hand exposure to the status of our marine habitats. We present our scientific findings to the communities and try to get them more involved in the decision-making processes.
5. Can you tell us about a particularly impactful initiative you have led in your role at Blue Marine Foundation?
We have had quite a few conservation successes to date including supporting the protection of new Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) on Laamu Atoll through our research, outreach, and education work. Our campaigns have been very successful. For example, the #ProtectMaldivesSeagrass campaign helped garner the support of 25% of the Maldives tourist resorts in support of seagrass conservation. Our #SaveOurSharks campaigned helped form an alliance of over 250 local and international stakeholders in support of maintaining the Maldives shark fishing ban. We have made very good progress on improving the understanding of reef fisheries in the Maldives, particularly on Laamu Atoll. At Six Senses Laamu, we have established a sustainable resort reef fishery model, where fishers from neighbouring communities sign up to a Code of Conduct and take part in the fishery management by reporting their catches and participating in management meetings. In return, they are guaranteed the best market price for their catch in the atoll, access to safety at sea equipment and trainings. We are now in the process of rolling out this model to other tourist resorts in the Maldives. Very little is known about the resort reef fisheries in the Maldives which hinders effective fisheries management. The health of our coral reefs is very much dependent on healthy reef fish stocks, so this project is extremely important to promote resilient reefs.
6. How do you measure the success of your conservation efforts, and what metrics do you use to evaluate impact?
We have an organizational strategy with clearly defined goals, impacts, and outcomes and all our projects align with these. For each project there is a monitoring and evaluation framework to measure the success of the interventions. Conservation impacts are often only achieved over a long term so it is important to have a clear vision of what you want to achieve and pathways of achieving them.
7. How do you stay up to date on the latest research and trends in marine conservation, and incorporate them into your work?
Blue Marine Foundation has a very supportive team in the UK and in other countries they have projects and a strong network of partners. We are very lucky to have access to their expertise. When you are working in conservation, you also get the opportunity to network and work with other organizations and universities. These connections help us stay connected with latest research and trends in marine conservation and help bring new ideas.
8. This year’s International Women’s Day theme is #EmbraceEquity. What does this slogan mean to you? What advice do you have for individuals who are passionate about marine conservation and want to make a difference in their communities?
Women makes half the population, yet women are very much underrepresented in management and decision-making roles. It is crucial for women to be able to have an equal say about things that can affects our lives. The hurdles that women must go through to find a seat at the table is far greater and complex than for men. That is why special considerations need to be given to actively seek women’s participation and say in the decision-making processes.
My advice to those who are passionate about marine conservation is to knock on as many doors as possible and find opportunities to gain experience in the field. There are many conservation organizations looking for Maldivians at entry level positions now. Do not worry if you do not have the experience or the skills yet as these are things that you can build as you grow if you have the passion and the drive. The most important advice that I have been given is to have a ‘thick skin’ because you will face many challenges and criticism along the way, especially when you are trying to change things. Believe in yourself and stand true to your values.
9. Looking to the future, what are your goals and vision for the future of marine conservation in the Maldives and beyond?
I want to see a Maldives where there is a strong collaboration between the national and local governments and civil society in conservation projects. Being such a small country, we need all hands on deck if we are to be able to tackle the problems in our way. The climate crisis is not something that we have much control over, but maintaining and restoring our natural assets that can protect us from its impacts is.
10. What legacy do you hope to leave through your work in marine conservation, and what impact do you hope to make on future generations?
I hope to be able to help develop new and more effective models for marine conservation in the Maldives that could be easily replicable. Through our work, I hope that we can contribute to the career development of more Maldivians in this field. My wish is for our future generations to be able to witness and experience the natural beauty of the Maldives so that we could sustain our way of life.
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