underwater photograph of a shoal of fish
Marine conservation

Marine conservation

A protected area as large as Germany

_Six years ago, KfW founded an innovative new fund for marine conservation. On behalf of the German Federal Government, it contributes to the preservation of endangered fish populations and the oceans. KfW Stories speaks to Executive Director Markus Knigge about what the Blue Action Fund has achieved since then.

About Markus Knigge
portrait of Markus Knigge

Markus Knigge has overseen the Blue Action Fund since June 2017. Previously, he was involved in marine conservation and marine life at various organisations, including the Pew Charitable Trusts, WWF and Ecologic Institute. Knigge studied in Berlin and the USA, initially focusing on urban and spatial planning and later moving into international relations and economics. He calls the task of building up the Blue Action Fund a “privilege”.

The Blue Action Fund has been around for six years. During that time, awareness that the oceans are in danger has increased greatly. Would you agree with that sentiment?

Markus Knigge:That’s also my impression. The public today knows more about overfishing, coral bleaching and plastic pollution in the oceans, so we don’t always have to start from scratch when explaining what we do.

What role has the fund played in making people more aware?

It’s difficult to say. While we have ambitious targets, we’re a small fund, so I wouldn’t claim that we’ve been a decisive factor. We are undoubtedly contributing in our own way, but today there is simply a greater general understanding of the ecological importance of the oceans. However, we are still very far from actually solving the problem.

In contrast to climate protection, for example, there are no international marine conservation agreements for the majority of the oceans, or the high seas as they are sometimes called...

That’s right. This is something that is being worked on at the United Nations, but it’s impossible to know how long the negotiations will take for such a convention. There is also the 200-mile zone, where the adjacent countries have more exclusive rights and where key biodiversity hotspots are located. This is the zone we are concentrating on in our work with the Blue Action Fund.

What is special about the Blue Action Fund and why is it needed?

It helps to set up new protected areas, expand existing ones and better manage both. It also seeks to improve the living conditions of local communities through the sustainable management of marine resources. The special aspect here is that it promotes projects by non-governmental organisations, which can reinforce and expand their own work using these public funds.

Have you had good experiences working with NGOs?

Definitely. The NGOs usually have a great deal of experience in marine conservation and are represented on site, meaning they are also close to the people on the ground. That’s important to us.

So you haven’t had to end any partnerships so far?

No, we haven’t. Under a partnership, we try to resolve inconsistencies as they arise as part of the general conversation. However, if serious matters such as corruption or the like should arise, we would be very quick to end the relationship. In the past five years we’ve terminated just one project, though that was for safety reasons. The project was in northern Mozambique and it was ended due to the threat of terrorism. The NGO understood and supported our decision.

aerial photo of cape town
Cape Town

The largest project the Blue Acion Fund finances is off the coast of South Africa.

How many projects are you financing at present?

We are currently financing projects in 16 countries – or off the coasts of these countries. They are all fairly well distributed across the southern hemisphere. Our largest project is off the coast of South Africa, followed by Peru, Ecuador and Costa Rica. I’d also like to point out that Mozambique is now home to the first protected areas managed by local communities thanks to our financing. The coastal communities of the Solomon Islands in the Pacific have been reinforced, and marine conservation areas have been created off São Tomé and Príncipe for the first time in its history. We have also helped to significantly expand the protected areas around the Galápagos Islands. These examples demonstrate how diverse and ambitious our portfolio has become. In addition to these 18 ongoing projects, we have 15 more in the pipeline.

So you would say that you have a positive record after six years?

Yes, absolutely. We have built up an organisation along with all the processes required to develop a funding programme, while attracting additional donors and moving forward at full speed at all times. In other words, we’ve built our house while planning how to build it.

Who has become involved in the fund in the past six years?

Sweden, France, Norway and the Green Climate Fund are now also co-financing the fund. We have collected 170 million euros so far. We are no longer a German organisation, though the Blue Action Fund continues to be based on a German initiative. It has developed into a multilateral foundation with strong member countries.

Blue Action Fund

The Blue Action Fund is a non-profit foundation under German law. KfW founded the fund under the authority of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). It does not carry out projects itself, but finances ones launched by non-governmental organisations, thereby allowing them to ramp up their efforts. The NGOs have to raise themselves at least 25% of the money for a project (“Match Fund”). Over the past five years, the Blue Action Fund has supported 17 projects through its funding, with more planned. Alongside Germany, the fund’s donors include Norway, Sweden, France and the Green Climate Fund. One priority is to include local people in the initiatives.

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Would you describe yourself as a major organisation?

On the one hand, we are nothing more than a drop in the ocean, because the problem is simply so great. Even with the 170 million euros we have raised so far, we will not overcome the challenge we are facing here as a global community. On the other hand, we are the largest public financing instrument for marine conservation areas – that’s worldwide. So I’d say we’re not a minor player. We are also hopeful that our donors will provide us with further funds, as will other countries after talking to them about what we do.

One of the major problems facing the oceans is overfishing, with two thirds of fish stocks already overfished or being depleted to the very limit of sustainability. What kind of contribution can you make here?

The marine conservation areas we promote are often “sustainable use areas”, or areas where fishing is not completely forbidden. This applies in particular to small-scale, local, and often indigenous fishermen who are allowed to continue working in such spots. We are trying to help them make their fishing operations more sustainable through a range of different measures. This includes gathering data on the state of fish stocks, implementing better controls, investing in the value chain, and promoting alternative sources of income. The recovery of fish stocks is very important: If fishing is not permitted in a certain area, then stocks will recover and there will be more fish in the surrounding areas. This helps local fishermen.

Don’t protected areas tend to go hand in hand with losses for those who have fished there so far?

A marine reserve is always accompanied by limited use – that is certainly the case. Otherwise, nothing would need to be protected. Someone who fished there before may not do so, or may only do so to a limited extent. In developing countries, this quickly becomes an existential problem. Most of those affected do not have any alternatives, or at least none that would be easy to find. This calls for alternatives to be provided in order to cushion the economic damage. This is one of the main objectives of the Blue Action Fund.

What kind of alternatives can be developed?

If a protected area is working reasonably well, fish stocks will recover; there will often be even more fish than before. But the recovery period needs to be bridged in some way. This is not an easy task, but it can work. In fisheries, up to 40% of the catch is lost in the value chain because, for example, cooling can’t be provided from beginning to end. This is particularly true for smaller-scale – and therefore poorer – fishermen. By rectifying this situation, it is possible to generate equal income with fewer catches. An alternative is to look for more ways to use the fish. Take fish skin, for example. It is often thrown away, but can be turned into fish leather and sold for profit.

What do you do with fish leather?

Everything you do with other types of leather: handbags, belts, shoes... I don’t want to make light of the problem, because this is just one solution. But there are ways to handle the situation, and we are working to do so in the projects we support.

How long does it take for fish stocks to recover if they are left alone?

It often takes just four or five years if the protected area is large enough and well monitored.

KfW promotes

KfW Development Bank supports numerous projects for the conservation of biodiversity. It promotes the protection of nature and species such as tropical forests, wildlife and oceans.

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Can you measure your successes over the past six years?

We can: 250,000 million people have benefited directly from our support. Almost 370,000 km2 of protected sea area – roughly the size of Germany – is now better managed. And just under 150,000 km2 of new protected area has been added. We are satisfied with our performance so far, but we of course want to continue to grow and achieve more.

What are your specific plans for the coming years?

At international level, the plan is to protect 30% of the Earth’s surface by 2030. When it comes to the sea, we are only at 8%; there is much to do in the next few years. We want to make a significant contribution to this. Part of this means bringing more donors on board. We want to make environmental and social standards stricter, strengthen our partners and further reinforce local civil society networks in the process. We also want to engage even more with representatives from the world of science.

Are digitalisation and artificial intelligence set to play a role?

In fisheries, certainly. We know more about the moon than the sea. This means we need more information and better data. After all, you can only protect what you understand well. There are many possibilities, from smart buoys that count fish swimming past to drones that monitor illegal fishing. All of this is just taking off now – including at Blue Action Fund. In other words, we still have a lot to do.

Published on KfW Stories on 8 June 2022, updated on 5 June 2023.


All United Nations member states adopted the 2030 Agenda in 2015. At its heart is a list of 17 goals for sustainable development, known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Our world should become a place where people are able to live in peace with each other in ways that are ecologically compatible, socially just, and economically effective.