Editor’s note: Claire Braund, author of the following perspective piece, is a director of The Regional Institute, a non-profit organization in New South Wales (Australia) that works to improve public access to research and educational information. Two years ago, when the New South Wales Government set up public consultation processes to plan a new marine park in state waters and zone three existing ones, it hired Braund to coordinate public awareness and media campaigns in support of those processes. Her piece describes strategies she employed to communicate scientific knowledge on MPAs to the public. Updates on the marine parks mentioned in this piece are available online at http://www.mpa.nsw.gov.au.

By Claire Braund, The Regional Institute, New South Wales, Australia

The role of marine protected areas as a resource management tool is gaining acceptance with governments in Australia. But the concept of MPAs has met resistance from some community stakeholders. Experience in New South Wales (NSW) suggests there is a gap in understanding between the scientific community and the general public about the status of marine resources, particularly if protection of these resources requires sacrifices by stakeholders. Such a gap can make it difficult for scientists and government to engage stakeholders in informed discussions about the importance and long-term benefits of marine protection.

In 2001 and 2002, the NSW Government released draft proposals for a new marine park of 230 km2 at Cape Byron; zoning plans for the 480-km2 Lord Howe Island Marine Park and the 220-km2 Jervis Bay Marine Park; and re-zoning of the 710-km2 Solitary Islands Marine Park. Each would involve some restrictions on human activity, including fishing.

With the exception of Lord Howe Island, the proposals attracted considerable media and public attention. However, little groundwork had been done by the government to introduce stakeholders to the concept or benefits of a marine park in their area. Consequently, there was a high level of misinformation about the proposals in the affected communities. Public perception was heavily influenced by articles and letters to the editor in the local media, often opposed to the park proposals. Recreational fishing groups campaigned strongly to prevent an increase in no-take zones, particularly in key fishing grounds. Tourism and business groups fought to retain the status quo, fearful of the impact of change on the local economy.

In general, only cursory community attention was being paid to factual information, such as on the status of marine resources. Adding to this problem was the fact that scientific research can take time to understand and explain, and is often not “black and white”. This presented a challenge for scientists active in the planning efforts: scientists often find it easier to communicate findings with their peers rather than working to inform the understanding and opinions of the public.

Prior to the release of the proposals, the government contracted with me to prepare plans to communicate the scientific basis for protection. These plans identified the key stakeholder groups and analyzed issues affecting them. From this, a series of communication tools were developed and the following strategies were prepared:

  • Emphasis was placed on being proactive, rather than reactive, in communicating with the media. Establishing myself as the first point of contact for all media inquiries limited the spread of rumors and conspiracy theories. Once requests for interviews had been made, I prepared crib sheets for the spokespeople (usually park managers) and set up interviews. In addition, there was a coordinated government effort to respond to media stories via letters to the editor, articles in fishing magazines, and other publications. Interviews with community opinion leaders were organized to ensure third-party endorsements for the proposals.
  • Research papers on MPAs in Australia and around the world were collated and circulated to the media and community to assist in increasing public understanding of the marine environment and why it should be protected.
  • To support the written research information, a weekly, 20-part, state-wide radio series was coordinated with the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC), featuring marine scientists, fish biologists, and others talking about marine habitats and fish life. Listeners were able to gain a general understanding of marine issues, as well as how the listeners themselves impacted and were affected by the marine environment.
  • As a follow-up to the radio series, transcripts of the interviews are now being prepared for publication on the internet. In this way, the lessons and experiences will be disseminated freely to the community and to those who are addressing these issues in the future.

These strategies helped focus community discussions on the scientific arguments in favor of resource protection, while defusing the problems of misinformation and misunderstanding. From those discussions, the government was able to incorporate reasonable public concerns in its planning. In the case of one marine park, for example, the government revised the proposed zoning and placed the draft plans out for public comment a second time.

Scientists have a key role to play in engaging the community to develop an understanding about the marine environment. Effectively informing stakeholders requires a sustained education campaign and new and innovative approaches. The scientific community needs to be proactive in using all media to ensure the general public has access to credible and factual information if the marine environment is to be valued and willingly protected.

For more information:
Claire Braund, The Regional Institute Ltd, PO Box 787, Gosford NSW 2250, Australia. Tel: +61 2 4369 6006; E-mail: cbraund@regional.org.au; Web: www.regional.org.au.