Budgetary shortfalls are a chronic challenge for MPA managers worldwide. It is rare for a MPA to have the funds to pay for all the equipment, material support, and personnel it needs to fulfill its purpose. To meet management goals within financial constraints, the use of volunteers can be invaluable. Many MPAs have set up formal programs to recruit, train, and retain volunteers for a wide array of projects – resource monitoring, enforcement, facility maintenance, and more.

But the management of volunteers can also present challenges, including the time required to train and oversee these personnel, which can be substantial in some cases. This month, MPA News examines how several MPA practitioners have set up volunteer programs in diverse sites, and what they have learned from their experiences.

Establishing volunteer programs for a national MPA system

When you visit the website for the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in the USA (http://www.fknms.nos.noaa.gov), the homepage offers a link for “Volunteer Opportunities”. Click on that link and you are provided a list of initiatives with needs for volunteer assistance: cleaning reefs, monitoring coral bleaching, testing water quality, restoring conch populations, and more. Information on how to contact each initiative and get involved is readily available.

Mary Enstrom is largely responsible for this. In 1992, she was hired by the sanctuary and by The Nature Conservancy, a NGO, to design and implement a volunteer program for the 9600-km2 Florida Keys site. This MPA became the first within the National Marine Sanctuary Program (NMSP) to include a volunteer action plan as a chapter within its management plan. Based on her success in the Florida Keys, Enstrom contracted with NMSP to help develop volunteer management programs for all 13 national marine sanctuaries across the nation, a task completed in 2005. Tools developed for the sanctuaries include a handbook for volunteers, safety manuals, tip sheets for supervisors, and inventories of existing and recommended volunteer projects. Information on each volunteer is entered into a national database for tracking purposes, and staffers at each site have been trained in volunteer management.

Enstrom says the benefits of recruiting volunteers – and hiring staff to supervise them – are many. “A manager is always able to achieve more once an established volunteer program is up and running,” she says. “Furthermore, operating a volunteer program reduces the cost of monitoring a MPA and reflects to the public that the MPA cares about them and their needs.” It can also lead to funding opportunities, she says. “Governments love to see community involvement and will thus be more likely to provide funding. In addition, citizens who are actively engaged with an organization or government agency will often give more in donations to that group than will those who are not involved.”

Enstrom acknowledges there can be costs as well to managing volunteers, including the time necessary for training and supervision. It is not unusual, she says, for a manager who is already overextended with responsibilities to say that the trouble of adding volunteers would outweigh the benefits. “When a manager says this, I have two responses,” she says. “One, you should not start a volunteer program if you don’t fully support the idea of involving the community in protecting the MPA. Public involvement is a reality for the future of our MPAs. Two, the manager needs to understand how community involvement could help the MPA. In this time of budget constraints, the public can be your best advocates for an adequate budget if they see the value of the site.”

For MPA managers who are considering establishing a volunteer program for their sites, Enstrom advises them to embrace the concept. “Convene a meeting of all agencies and NGOs in your community to discuss the reality of starting a new volunteer program or adding to an existing one,” she says. There are experts out there, she says, to assist in the development. “There are many volunteer program consultants in the world,” she says. “Paying someone to facilitate that meeting for the manager would be worth the cost: an outside consultant is not invested in any of the current programs.” She adds that consultants can also be asked to write an action plan for implementing a MPA volunteer program.

Chumbe Island, Zanzibar: Attracting volunteers from nearby and worldwide

At Chumbe Island Coral Park, located 13 km southwest of Zanzibar, Tanzania, the help of volunteers has become an essential part of operations. Run on a tight budget by a small, private not-for-profit company, the park works to minimize costs while pursuing the goal of sustainable development through ecotourism-supported conservation and education. An average of 10-20 volunteers per year – from Tanzania and far-away nations – have served in an array of activities, geared to take advantage of the strengths of each individual.

The volunteer jobs have ranged from specialized assignments of a couple days in length, to ecological baseline surveys, nature trail development and maintenance, staff training, production of education materials, and management support for several months or even years. Management has sometimes coordinated with international volunteer agencies (e.g., Germany’s Senior Expert Service, the UK’s British Executive Service Overseas) to recruit experts on specific matters like solar voltaics, boatbuilding, graywater filtration, and rat eradication. But many of the volunteer arrangements are fortuitous, driven by the initiative and flexibility of volunteers themselves. An American woman, Molly, visited Chumbe for a day trip in 2004 and ended up volunteering as an administrative assistant for eight months. In 1999, when the park had an urgent need for temporary island managers, the project manager conducted a search for suitable candidates among tourists in Zanzibar, finding an enthusiastic Canadian couple who seized the opportunity and moved to Chumbe within days. They spent half a year there.

“Volunteers are very enthusiastic and usually have a lot of initiative,” says Helen Peeks, project manager for the park. “Many of the volunteers have decided that they want to work in the area of conservation or ecotourism in Zanzibar and contact us directly, using information from the internet.” For housing arrangements, the company can accommodate volunteers in its office building in Zanzibar town (off the island) and in the manager’s house on Chumbe; some also reside with friends.

Notably, Chumbe management does not advertise the need for volunteers on its website, http://www.chumbeisland.com. Says Sibylle Riedmiller, project director, “At this point, we don’t need to advertise volunteer jobs. We’re getting more applications than we can accommodate all the time.”

On the challenges of supervising these volunteers, Peeks says that although briefing and supervision of new volunteers can be time-consuming, it is the longer-term volunteers who require more work by administrators. The reason: work permits. “When we have international volunteers for less than three months, they come on a tourist visa, which minimizes administration for us,” she says. “However, volunteers who stay for longer have a lengthy immigration process that I have to organize and process. Recently I had a Ugandan intern for whom I had to get separate permission from the Commission of Tourism before I could apply for his immigration status of student. After his internship we offered him a job, and the resulting process of changing his immigration status took nearly a month of form-filling and visits to immigration – very expensive.” In some cases, volunteers badly needed by Chumbe have been turned down by immigration officials for their work permits.

Although most volunteers arrive at Chumbe ready to get to work, Peeks says some come with misunderstandings over job descriptions or priorities. “This usually happens with international volunteers rather than national,” she says. The remote location leads some internationals to expect a Robinson Crusoe-like paradise – perhaps why some of them first dream of volunteering there – but find only part of this true. Peeks adds, “There can also be challenges caused by cultural differences, such as appropriate dresswear in a Muslim society or communication problems because of language and attitude. These can be overcome by better preparation from the volunteer and guidance from the company.”

A “volunteer mentality” involves a person being flexible and open to living in a local manner rather than an expatriate lifestyle, says Peeks. “Supervision really depends on the volunteers. If they have had African experience before and are clear with their objectives, they are usually very self-reliant.”

The Seaflower MPA, Colombia: Using volunteers to build community support

Colombia’s San Andres Archipelago in the southwest Caribbean is a UNESCO biosphere reserve. Within it is the multiple-use Seaflower MPA, which covers 65,000 km2. Overseen by CORALINA, a regional Colombian government agency that manages natural resources and sustainable development of the archipelago, the MPA was mapped and zoned through a four-year, cooperative process involving local stakeholder groups (MPA News 6:10).

Marion Howard is former coordinator of the MPA project of CORALINA and now a MPA advisor to the agency. “Stakeholders share responsibility for managing the MPA with CORALINA, so volunteers are involved in many ways,” says Howard. “Our volunteer programs can be loosely categorized as formal and informal. The formal programs are quite structured, with defined relationships, substantial training, and agreements signed between volunteers and CORALINA to formalize responsibilities on both sides.” One of the most important formal programs, she says, is the MPA Stakeholder Advisory Committee (SAC), made up of invited volunteers from primary user groups: artisanal fishers, professional divers, other water sports, marinas, the tourist sector, and traditional users (the indigenous community). The SAC is consulted on all aspects of MPA management. Other formal programs include volunteer inspectors, who conduct surveillance of the MPA, and a mooring buoy program that involves siting, installation, and maintenance of buoys by volunteers.

Community-based monitoring in the MPA, including monitoring of coral health, fish, sea turtles, and beaches, is a less-formal volunteer program, says Howard. “Monitoring programs are open to everyone (CORALINA finances dive courses for interested people who cannot afford training). More people are trained, participation is flexible, and networks are less structured,” she says. “Volunteers also support research – working with scientists, for example, on baseline ecological studies, household surveys, and identification of spawning aggregation sites. Because poverty is widespread and the archipelago has very high unemployment (over 50%), knowledgeable stakeholders like artisanal fishers are also hired to help with research when funding is available.” The most informal volunteer programs, Howard says, include events like beach clean-ups and information campaigns and are open to the entire community.

Nearly all CORALINA volunteers come from the archipelago. The exceptions are graduate students who participate in ongoing research projects, divers from the mainland who engage in annual marine clean-ups, and a number of international marine scientists and MPA experts who serve on an International Advisory Board (MPA News 5:2). “Since all of our work is participatory, CORALINA maintains strong ongoing relationships with local NGOs, the private sector, schools, churches, and neighborhoods – all of which provide volunteers,” says Howard.

The volunteer-based linkages between the Seaflower MPA and the community provide great benefits for management, says Elizabeth Taylor, CORALINA general director. “The SAC is essential for effective management,” she says. “These volunteers keep in close contact with other users and are the strongest link between CORALINA and the people who work in the MPA. They share information openly with management and take information back to the community. The Seaflower is a very large MPA, so managers and staff can’t stay informed about what is going on there on a day-to-day basis without maintaining close ties to users.”

Involving the community in a wide array of MPA activities also generates overall support for the MPA, says Taylor. “As volunteers learn more about marine conservation and management, they in turn become informal educators, raising awareness throughout the community,” she says. “In addition, the volunteer programs promote transparency in MPA management and provide a mechanism for the community to share responsibility for MPA effectiveness with CORALINA.”

Challenges for the volunteer programs include the region’s poverty – which makes it difficult for people to commit themselves to volunteer work – and the fact that, historically, volunteerism has not been part of the local culture. Howard says, “It was particularly unheard of to volunteer with government. Government was not trusted and did not communicate with the public, and corruption was widespread, so the custom was to keep out of the way of authorities.”

These and other factors combine to mean that the same people tend to get involved in community affairs, including being the most committed volunteers, says Howard. “These people can get spread too thin. Reaching new people and getting them involved in the MPA on an ongoing basis requires the development of a new environmental consciousness through constant outreach and communication with stakeholders,” she says.

Edmonds Underwater Park, USA: Management by volunteers

For nearly 30 years, Bruce Higgins has coordinated the volunteer program at tiny Edmonds Underwater Park in Edmonds, Washington, USA. Overseeing dozens of volunteers per year at an annual program-wide average of 1500 hours of volunteer time, Higgins has not been paid a dollar. He is a volunteer himself.

The municipally owned Edmonds Underwater Park – located a few miles north of Seattle and measuring just 0.1 km2 in area – attracts 20,000 dive visitors per year with its assortment of man-made reef structures (e.g., sunken vessels, a dry dock, milk crates, piles of rocks) and the marine life these items nurture, including some of the largest lingcod in Puget Sound and more than 100 lingcod nests. Viewed by some as an unnatural oddity for its abundance of infrastructure – including a three-mile system of rope trails and markers to aid diver navigation in the sometimes murky water – the no-take park has nonetheless gained a measure of international recognition for the size and abundance of some fish species within its boundaries. Much of the recreational and ecological features of the park owe to the work of volunteers since 1977, when Higgins took charge of coordinating volunteer efforts, including placement of the sunken structures.

“The protected status for the park took effect around 1970, and I first started diving it in 1974,” says Higgins. “The no-harvest protection already provided more diversity compared to other Puget Sound sites that did not have such protection. My involvement came out of the need to manage conflicting user groups in the park – boaters vs. divers. I coordinated the placement of buoys to keep boaters away from divers and to better define the unique protected area. Projects just grew from there.”

Higgins does not have a formal title with the City of Edmonds, which owns and manages the park. The city treats him as a park user who happens to share the city’s value system for the area – namely that the site should be managed for recreational and biological purposes. The city oversees management of facilities on-site including restrooms, a shower station, parking lot, and signage, and provides public safety services (police, first aid, etc.). The volunteers, coordinated by Higgins, maintain the existing underwater infrastructure, lay new “enhancement” structures (with city permission), inspect wear on the marker buoy system, and carry out various other activities as needed. “Each year we try to install one diver-scaled feature, like a wooden hull that was placed in 1999,” he says. “Since this is a [recreational] park as well as a protected area, we blend our projects to support marine life and diver interest.”

The level of volunteer support has varied over time, says Higgins, but can be grouped into two camps. “There are about 10 individuals who commit to a schedule that involves monthly or more frequent dives during the year, and they provide much of the horsepower to get things done. The second group of individuals, numbering about 50 a year, help less frequently and typically just show up a couple times,” he says. Higgins hosts work dives each Saturday, no matter the weather. Over the course of a year, the average is about 2.5 divers per work dive, with 156 dives per year.

The consistent Saturday schedule aids in attracting a steady supply of volunteers, he says: divers know they can show up on any Saturday and volunteer. He adds that a simple set of priorities established by the park’s volunteers – i.e., safety, security, maintenance, and improvement – serves to attract like-minded individuals. In addition, rewards for participation kick in after a few dives when volunteers see the response to their efforts, with marine life moving in on newly placed features and users commenting on how the volunteers’ effort is appreciated.

Over the long term, a danger of volunteerism is burnout – when a volunteer tires from devoting so much of his or her energy and time to a cause with no financial payback. Higgins says this has not been a problem for himself. “Avoiding burnout has been very easy,” he says. “The needs of the park have evolved over time, and so our chores in fulfilling our priorities have changed.” There are new projects (including a recent initiative to combat an invasive tunicate species in the park), constant variation in weather and tides, and new volunteers with different skill sets, he says.

In the three decades since assuming his position, and showing up 52 weekends per year, Higgins has become an institution at the park. What will happen when he is no longer able to do what he does? “My hope is that someone with a similar attitude will elect to invest and connect with the City of Edmonds,” he says. No one is in place yet to take that role. “The decision to be a partner is not something that occurs overnight,” he says. “The pattern and value system represented by the priority list will exist, and if someone elects to take it on, it will be ‘their’ turn.”

For more information:

Mary Enstrom, 4113 Residence Drive #206, Fort Myers, FL 33901, USA. Tel:+1 239 936 8974; E-mail: diver4275@aol.com

Sibylle Riedmiller and Helen Peeks, Chumbe Island Coral Park, PO Box 3203, Zanzibar/Tanzania. Tel: +255 24 2231040; E-mail: sibylle@chumbeisland.com, chumbe@zitec.org

Marion Howard, West End, Cayman Brac, Cayman Islands, BWI. E-mail: marionwhoward@yahoo.com

Elizabeth Taylor, General Director, CORALINA, San Luis Road, The Bight, San Andres Island, Colombia. Tel: +578 512 6853; E-mail: coralsai@telecom.com.co

Bruce Higgins, 20138 44th Ave NE, Seattle, WA 98155, USA. Tel: +1 206 367 3360

BOX: Dependence on volunteer, low-wage labor can have downsides

Over-reliance on the use of unpaid or underpaid labor in natural resource management – particularly full-time volunteers and interns – can be unfair to these workers, according to Darroch Whitaker, a postdoctoral fellow in biology at Acadia University, Canada. In a paper published in the journal Conservation Biology in 2003, Whitaker argued that providing less than a minimum wage to full-time workers causes undue personal hardship to these personnel, and excludes potentially valuable individuals from lower economic classes who cannot afford to work for low, or no, wages.

“The use of volunteers, which can be a great thing if done with due consideration, can become problematic when reliance on them becomes engrained in the professional culture,” Whitaker told MPA News. “We conservationists often complain about being underfunded, and of course this is quite often true, but we become our own worst enemies when we grow complacent and stop asking for or expecting legitimate wages for our employees. In doing so, we fail to convey the true cost of conservation to policy makers and governments, and may exclude people from less privileged economic backgrounds from our profession. Both of these factors will impede conservation in the long term.”

Whitaker’s article in Conservation Biology (“The Use of Full-Time Volunteers and Interns by Natural-Resource Professionals”, Vol. 17, No. 1, pp. 330-333) is available online in PDF format at http://www.earthscape.org/r2/ES14744/scb17-1_whd01/scb17-1_whd01.pdf.

For more information:

Darroch Whitaker, Biology Department, Acadia University, Wolfville, NS, B4P 2R6, Canada. Tel: +1 902 680 2221; E-mail: darroch.whitaker@acadiau.ca