Originally developed to improve conservation in terrestrial ecosystems, the HCV Approach is increasingly recognised as a valuable method for preserving essential water resources and habitats

Some of the most threatened ecosystems on the planet are freshwater areas – our rivers, lakes, the water networks providing essential services to communities living both near and far. Our attention on the health of our oceans has also grown in the last decades, as pollution, overfishing, and climate change are changing the waters we depend on. With about 75 per cent of major marine fish stocks exhausted or overexploited, the food security and livelihoods of millions of people face an uncertain future.

But how can the protection of freshwater and marine ecosystems be improved using some of the methods that have been effective for conservation in other contexts? The HCV Approach can provide some of the answers, experts agree, by helping to tackle many of the harmful practices affecting our waters.

Earlier this summer, the HCV Summit brought together a panel of experts to discuss how the HCV Approach can be adapted to water ecosystems, and what challenges still need overcoming. It wasn’t the first conversation on the topic – in 2015, a scientific paper looked at how HCVs could be adapted and applied to freshwater ecosystems.

“The HCV Approach is flexible and adaptable, making it suitable to aquatic habitats. Freshwater and marine ecosystems, like their land-based counterparts, are valued due to their various qualities from community importance to rare and endangered species,” says Alexis Morgan, Global Water Stewardship Lead at WWF, who moderated the session at the Summit and also co-authored the 2015 paper. “The Approach covers these various aspects making it a suitable frame across terrestrial, marine and freshwater systems,” says Morgan.


According to Robin Abell, freshwater lead at Conservation International, even though High Conservation Values might not specifically be mentioned in freshwater ecosystem conservation, HCVs are invoked, especially HCV 2 (landscape-level ecosystems) and HCV 5 (community needs). “There has been a real upsurge in attention around critical natural capital,” said Abell during the Summit. “Many companies are looking to invest in Nature-based Solutions (NbS) for water security to offset their water use or reduce their risks.” For Abell, an advantage of adapting the HCV Approach for use in water contexts is that the methodology is comprehensive and that it doesn’t prioritise one value over another. This should help private sector actors who are interested in investing in healthy watersheds to think about their impact more holistically as they try to reduce their water risks.

The HCV Approach can be a useful tool for protecting ecosystems in the Amazon. Carlos Durigan from WCS Brazil explained during the HCV Summit that the Approach could support local governments have a fresh, more holistic vision for aquatic ecosystem management in the region and their connection to land and could also better inform decision-making processes. The HCV Approach’s focus on community engagement could also improve the participation of local communities, Indigenous Peoples, and other stakeholders in monitoring how industries are affecting critical ecosystems.

Mariana Aziz, director of Oceana’s Transparency Campaign in Mexico thinks that the HCV Approach is suited for policies aimed at sustainable fisheries. “HCV characteristics can be well integrated into policy,” said Aziz at the HCV Summit. “Our data on Marine Protected Areas integrates the HCV principles. These areas are sometimes created very far away from the shore, but they support important ecosystems, and are also culturally very valuable – many coastal communities depend on fishing, especially for artisanal fisheries.”

Aziz explains that the HCV methodology for identifying threats to ecosystems on land could be applicable for marine HCVs too. Oceana’s work on traceability focuses on having fisheries demonstrate the legality of their products along the supply chain. “Part of the HCV Approach can be integrated into these kind of traceability schemes using public policies – creating common ground for fisheries lacking access to private schemes and a level playing field with private actors.”

Gaps in data are still hampering the adaptation of the HCV Approach for aquatic contexts. “In a marine context, it’s harder to generate the same amount of data as on land,” said Sophie Benbow, head of marine at Fauna and Flora International during the Summit. “We may have data collection in place, but very few fisheries have access to that.” Benbow does see the value of using the HCV Approach, especially when it comes to standardising the type of data required and for engaging governments in spatial planning processes for marine conservation, but stresses that there is more work needed to include ecological and cultural aspects for seascape protection.

“The HCV Approach is neither easier, nor more difficult, to be applied in aquatic contexts – rather, we just have fewer examples to date of its use in freshwater and marine systems,” says WWF’s Morgan. “Nevertheless, as a first step, it makes sense to build off of examples that cross over – for example, wetlands in forested areas often harbour High Conservation Values.”

Despite challenges, the HCV Network continues to advance its work on aquatic ecosystems. This July, the Secretariat signed a MoU with the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC), the world’s top certifier of farmed seafood, to work together on facilitating the implementation of the HCV Approach. Through this MoU, the Network aims to support the ASC in developing tailored and practical HCV guidance for fish farming companies operating in freshwater and marine ecosystems. Testing the HCV Approach in aquatic ecosystems will gradually provide the answers to the current challenges experts face and will deepen knowledge of our aquatic resources and what is required for their long-term conservation.

The Secretariat is also working to secure funding for piloting the HCV Approach in the context of seafood farming, as well as wetland conservation and restoration in Central and South America, in collaboration with organisations like WWF Chile, WWF Mesoamerica and Pronatura Noreste.

For more details on our work or enquiries on collaborations, please get in touch with Ana Sofia Lorda sofia@hcvnetwork.org

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *