Editor’s note: Bryan Oles, Charlie Wahle, and Sarah Fischer work with the (US) National MPA Center, established in 2000 within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to provide science, information, and tools for an effective national system of MPAs (http://www.mpa.gov). Marc Miller and Patrick Christie are on the faculty at the School of Marine Affairs, University of Washington, USA.

By Bryan Oles, Charles M. Wahle, Sarah Fischer, Marc L. Miller, and Patrick Christie

How often have you heard it said that people are the key to the success or failure of marine protected areas? This message is echoed repeatedly in the literature on MPA design and effectiveness. In practical terms, though, what does it mean to understand the human dimension of MPAs, and how do we incorporate social science into effective planning and adaptive management of MPAs?

The (US) National MPA Center is addressing these questions through its social science program, which was launched with the Social Science Research Strategy for MPAs (SSRS). Drafted in 2003, this document is based on a workshop that brought together 75 leading social scientists, policy makers, and MPA practitioners to generate key research themes on the human dimensions of MPAs. The SSRS describes priority areas of social science inquiry that are fundamental to MPA planning, management, and evaluation, and recommends steps for building national capacity in MPA social science research (http://www.mpa.gov/virtual_library/Publications/ssr_strategy.pdf).

Each priority area (i.e., governance, institutions, and processes; use patterns; attitudes, perceptions, and beliefs; economics; communities; and cultural heritage and resources) entails the application of concepts and methods from an array of social sciences. These include anthropology, economics, political science, and more. The SSRS lays the foundation for strengthening the use of social science in MPA processes by highlighting the diversity of issues to be addressed and understood by managers, agencies, researchers, and the public.

Identifying regional needs for MPA social science

The MPA Center is building on the broad and generally applicable themes in the SSRS by identifying specific regional social science research and data needs through a series of focused workshops held in the US and its territories. To date, four workshops have been held: US Caribbean and South Florida (August 2003), South Atlantic (December 2003), US Pacific Islands (March 2004), and Pacific Coast (August 2005). Each workshop brought together researchers and MPA practitioners from state and federal agencies, NGOs, academic institutions, and regional governing bodies. They identified priority research needs and developed specific projects to meet them. The workshop reports are available at http://www.mpa.gov/information_tools/social_science.html.

This participatory process has revealed general research needs that are common to all regions, such as:

  1. Studies that yield insights into, and models for, effective stakeholder participation;
  2. Research on management structures and processes that determine success;
  3. Analyses of public attitudes about MPAs and the environment, which can be used to craft more effective communication strategies;
  4. Documentation of past, present, and future trends in use patterns and their impacts for both baseline assessments and monitoring effects of MPAs;
  5. Social and economic impact assessments; and
  6. Methods of incorporating local knowledge and stakeholder input into site planning and monitoring design.

However, workshop results stress that the approach to understanding these commonly identified needs must be informed by the unique geopolitical, ecological, socioeconomic, and cultural characteristics of each region. These characteristics include, for example, the relative importance of tourism to the Caribbean and South Florida region, or the presence of tribal and indigenous peoples in Alaska and the northwest coast of the US. The regional history and intensity of MPA activity can also affect the prioritization of social science needs. Just as there is no one-size-fits-all approach to MPAs, regional socioeconomic and cultural differences may require the application of equally flexible and adaptable social science methods and approaches.

The MPA Center intends to complete the social science workshops in the remaining regions of the United States. These efforts aim to build on the body of work being generated by scientists, managers, and stakeholders to raise awareness of the human dimensions of MPAs and ecosystem-based management in general. As ecosystem approaches to management gain currency in marine policy, human dimensions research is gathering momentum among state and federal agencies, academic institutions, and NGOs.

The findings of the social science workshops promote the need for greater integration of social and natural science and the recognition that people are instrumental to successful MPA and ecosystem-based management. The research priorities and projects identified through this process, coupled with the MPA Center’s and workshop participants’ shared commitment to rigorous and ethical social science, will continue to support MPA planning and management efforts and other forms of place-based, ecosystem management throughout the US and abroad.

For more information:

Bryan Oles, National MPA Center, NOAA, 1305 East West Highway, Room 12255, Silver Spring, MD 20910, USA. Tel: +1 301 713 3100 ext. 113; E-mail: Bryan.Oles@noaa.gov