In an essay in the June 2005 issue of MPA News, Nancy Dahl-Tacconi of the University of Queensland called on MPA managers to balance the roles of science and stakeholder participation in decision-making (“Science, Participation, and Politics in MPA Management”, MPA News 6:11). At the end of the essay, MPA News asked readers: What role should negotiation with stakeholders play, and are there times when decisions should be based primarily on natural science with less consideration of stakeholders’ concerns?

Feedback, consisting of two letters and an interview, is presented below.

Letter: Decision-making is always a negotiation

Dear MPA News:
Natural scientists, as professionals, may know far more than other stakeholders about natural science. However, decision-making is always a negotiation among a variety of agents involving societal choices, trade-offs, and value judgments. After all, we do not “manage” natural systems; we manage the human activities that influence those systems, and it is these human/ecosystem interactions on which we need to focus management strategy. In this context, the views and values of natural scientists are no more valid than those of other stakeholders. So when it comes to making management decisions, all stakeholders are, or should be, equal participants. The management plan that reflects the values and desires of as many stakeholders as possible is also the one most likely to work.

I am not rejecting scientific input – far from it. Rather, all factors should be recognized and included. (Basing decisions on purely economic concerns can be fairly disastrous, too.)

Granted, this represents an optimistic view of community decision-making. I have been involved in such decision-making where the option put forward by “educated and informed management” (me!) was rejected out of hand to my astonishment, and I had to accept that. Thankfully, no urgent natural science questions were at stake. But there may be other cases where communities select short-term, self-interested options with potentially harmful consequences, from a natural scientist’s viewpoint. Should these scientists have some sort of right of veto? I am not sure, and I am even less sure how it would be implemented.

It should be noted that the statement “Management should be based on sound science” is interpreted differently by different disciplinary perspectives. The natural scientist places the emphasis on “sound science” (as opposed to unsound science). The social scientist places the emphasis on “based on”, recognizing that there are many other factors that contribute to management.

Karen Bowler
Marine and Coastal Policy Research Group, School of Earth, Ocean and Environmental Sciences, A521 Portland Square, University of Plymouth, Drake Circus, Plymouth, Devon PL4 8AA, UK. Tel: +44 01752 233 005; E-mail:

Editor’s note: Karen Bowler is a Ph.D. candidate studying the Irish Sea as a socio-ecological system.

Letter: Socio-economic factors determine MPA fate

Dear MPA News:
The issue of what role stakeholders should play in MPA decision-making is a critical question. Please forgive me if I quote from Guidelines for Marine Protected Areas (IUCN 1999), with which, I suppose predictably, I strongly agree:

“5.2 – In selecting sites, the conservation needs should be balanced with the needs of local people, who may depend on the sea for their livelihoods.

“In most countries, there is a long history of using marine areas close to the coast, often for subsistence. Attempts to exclude these uses from traditional areas may jeopardize the well-being or even survival of the human communities involved. In such cases, opposition will be strong and undermine successful management of these areas if they are ever established.

“It is better to create and manage successfully an MPA that may not be ideal in ecological terms, but which achieves the purposes for which it is established, than to labor vainly to create the theoretically ideal MPA. Where there is a choice of ecologically suitable areas, as there often is in the sea, the dominant criteria for selection of MPA locations, boundaries, and management systems should be socio-economic. Where there is no choice, ecological criteria should come first.

“In general, not enough weight has been given to socio-economic criteria in the selection of MPAs, yet these factors will probably determine whether the MPA flourishes or fails. Because community support is absolutely vital to the success of any MPA, MPAs that contribute to economic activity will be far easier to create and manage than those that do not.”

Graeme Kelleher
12 Marulda Street, Aranda, Canberra ACT 2614, Australia. Tel: +61 2625 11402; E-mail:

Editor’s note: Graeme Kelleher, a senior advisor to the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas, edited Guidelines for Marine Protected Areas. The full publication is available in PDF format at

Interview: Policy decisions should be based on ecology

M. Nils Peterson, a biologist at Michigan State University (US), writes in the June 2005 issue of Conservation Biology that the overuse of consensus-based processes by resource managers can have dangerous implications for the resources being managed (“Conservation and the Myth of Consensus”, Volume 19, No. 3, pp. 762-767.) He recommends the use of an “argumentative model” in decision-making, rooted in ecology and allowing for dissent among stakeholders. For a copy of his paper, e-mail Peterson at

MPA News: Should environmental policy decisions be based more on ecology than on socioeconomic considerations?

Nils Peterson: Absolutely. If we do not base policy decisions on ecology, the socioeconomic impact is disastrous. But, as you know, it is not simple. Context should inform environmental decision-making in every case, and the context is a milieu resulting from past interactions between societies and their environments. Ecological historians have demonstrated how culture (including economy, religion, education, etc.) interacted with nature (e.g., climate, availability of fossil fuels, adjacency of water bodies, species compositions) to create decision-making contexts. Arbitrarily dividing ecological and socioeconomic considerations is analogous to dividing the brain from the rest of your body when making health decisions.

MPA News: One of the main arguments made in favor of consensus-based processes for MPAs is that they foster compliance with regulations: if everyone agrees on what the regulations should be, then everyone will obey them. The argumentative model that you propose would result in some people not agreeing with regulations of a site. Do you believe your model still works best for MPAs?

Peterson: If a policy does not protect the natural resources it is intended to protect, it does not help to have 100% compliance. Bad policy remains bad policy, even if everyone follows it. One of the biggest weaknesses of consensus-based processes is their focus on ensuring that everyone “feels good” about the outcome. That can lead to sloppy decision-making.

Consensus, it should be said, is not an inappropriate goal, because it does foster compliance, thus lowering the cost of implementation and monitoring. We are not suggesting abandoning consensus, merely de-centering it. Instead, our argumentative model facilitates creative use of dissent when it exists. An argumentative approach makes dissenters responsible for explaining the rationale behind their dissent in an attempt to influence policy. It offers a realistic means of negotiating the politics of opposing identities and interests that confront one another in environmental policy deliberations.

Our model relies on evidence that citizens of democratic states often obey laws because they believe widespread obedience to law protects the community’s interests, not because the law meets their individual short-term interests. They will not do this if the legal system loses its legitimacy. Thus, we are not advocating doing away with public participation; instead we suggest legitimizing dissent within public participation. Dissent is essential for any sustainable society because dissent leads to change, and society must change to survive in a dynamic environment.

For more information:

M. Nils Peterson, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Michigan State University, 13 Natural Resources Building, East Lansing, MI 48824-1222, USA. E-mail: