August - September 2020 (13:7)

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Editor’s note: In 2012, the US state of California formally adopted a statewide network of 124 marine protected areas (MPAs), covering over 16% of state waters. A new book Beyond Polarization: Public Process and the Unlikely Story of California's Marine Protected Areas analyzes what allowed the California Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative to succeed in a time of political polarization and fiscal constraint. We interviewed book author Steven Yaffee and process participant Kaitilin Gaffney to get their perspectives about the MLPA Initiative and how conservation action can be achieved at times of political polarization. Yaffee is a professor of natural resources and environmental policy at the University of Michigan, and Gaffney is director of the Ocean, Coast, and Fisheries Program at the Resources Legacy Fund, which oversaw the MLPA Initiative, a public-private partnership between the state of California and philanthropic donors. She participated in the MLPA Initiative as director of the Pacific Program of Ocean Conservancy.

Skimmer: What were some of the major factors that created polarization at the time that the California MLPA Initiative was going on, and what were some of the major factors that enabled the California MLPA Initiative to succeed?

Yaffee: Part of the book’s subtitle is “the Unlikely Story of the California MPAs,” and at many points throughout the MPA planning process known as the “MLPA Initiative,” it

seemed incredibly unlikely that it would produce MPA designations on the water. There was intense conflict over competing uses and the values associated with marine ecosystems, which promoted polarization between the human representatives of those values. In many places, the situation felt very zero-sum, that is, outcomes that would provide gains to one interest would necessarily create losses to another. Win-lose situations are highly competitive and likely to lead to impasse, since it appears that there can be no gains from a collaborative approach.

Reinforcing this tendency to inaction was the fact that California’s MPA planning occurred during the Great Recession. The “we can’t afford it” argument was used by MPA opponents and their political allies to press back against continuing the planning process, as were many other arguments: MPAs are unnecessary; have too high an economic cost; and won’t end pollution or slow coastal development. MPA proponents and opponents formed active coalitions outside of the formal public process to influence outcomes. These coalitions mobilized hundreds of people on all sides of the issue, crowding public hearing venues and generating media headlines. The most likely outcome of this level of visible conflict was that political officials would pull back from a commitment to MPAs.

In addition, the science of MPA networks was not well-established during California’s planning process, which enabled MPA opponents to argue that uncertain benefits did not warrant potential costs. Some state agency staff were reluctant to embrace MPAs or share control over the MPA planning process. Critically, historic state policies that failed to recognize the unique harvesting rights of Native American Tribes and tribal communities became barriers to progress and could have derailed the whole effort.

With conditions like these, it is rare to get past impasse and achieve durable outcomes. The book details what happened, but here are a few of the factors promoting success. First, the 1999 Marine Life Protection Act settled the question of whether there would be new MPAs. While fisheries interests tried to relitigate this question throughout the first three years of the MLPA Initiative, the law was clear: there would be new MPAs and ecosystem protection would take priority. The law did not require minimizing economic impacts, which reduced the power of MPA opponents. However, there was intense political pressure to consider economic impacts in MPA design. As a result, Ecotrust was hired by the Initiative to project “worst case” economic impacts. While no one was fully satisfied by their data, it did exceed the information assembled by the state in previous efforts. One way or the other, having information on economic values – expressed in the Ecotrust data and by the fishermen themselves – incentivized MPA proponents to do their best to accommodate fishing industry concerns.

Second, the scientific advisors to the MLPA Initiative defined a set of simple rules of thumb for MPA design, which enabled stakeholders to create their own MPA plans, based on the scientific guidelines and fostered a greater sense of understanding and ownership over MPAs. The law’s requirement that the process use “best readily available science,” undercut MPA opponents’ arguments that more information was needed before making decisions, a common delay tactic in public decision making.

Third, the MLPA Initiative was a unique public-private partnership that mobilized US$38 million in funding from both state and philanthropic sources to support the process. This partnership provided flexibility and creativity that bypassed the normal bureaucratic conditions that often bog down public decision making. The Initiative was carefully designed to be both accountable and effective, so that it was transparent, inclusive, and firewalled from control by private interests. At the same time, the partnership enabled an extraordinary level of public engagement, while building the political will to move forward.

Fourth, strategic public process was deployed through four sequential regional planning processes to enable learning and adaptation to the unique conditions along the long and varied California coast. Good facilitators brought lots of tools to the table; representatives of a broad range of stakeholder groups were carefully chosen by facilitators and state officials to promote collaborative engagement; and the overall structure of the Initiative created effective linkages and boundaries between policymakers, scientists, and stakeholders.

Overall, the process mobilized and empowered a diverse set of people to engage directly in decision making in a manner that was unusual in public policy. The use of a collaborative geographic information system enabled diverse interests to design alternative MPA networks together, shifting the dynamic from conflict between people on different sides of a negotiating table to problem-solving focused on common data and a shared space. Relationships were built among representatives of different stakeholder groups, enabling enough trust to develop to foster interest-based bargaining.

None of this was perfect; mistakes were made; science guidelines were not met in some regions; and exhaustive iterative process was frustrating to all. Still, from this set of carefully thought-out conditions, California gained a significant legacy, not the least of which was the sense that people can work together to solve shared problems even in polarized times.

Gaffney: California has a 1,000-mile coastline with diverse habitats ranging from sandy beaches, tidepools, and estuaries, to lush kelp forests and deep-sea canyons. Native American communities have relied on and stewarded ocean and coastal resources for over 14,000 years. California has a current population of nearly 40 million people and a coastal tourism-based economy worth more than US$17 billion annually. Millions of visitors come each year to enjoy its beaches, surf, sail, kayak, SCUBA dive, swim, and appreciate its abundant seabirds, marine mammals, and other ocean wildlife. Hundreds of commercial fisherman harvest over 300 different species of fish and invertebrates off the California coast, and more than 250,000 ocean specific fishing licenses are sold in southern California alone each year. Clearly, California’s coast and ocean provide many different values to many different users, so getting agreement on which areas to protect and how to protect them was an inherently challenging task.

As Steve (Yaffee) noted, after the MLPA was signed into law, state agencies struggled to carry out the law in the face of budget limitations, scientific uncertainty, and hostility from fishing groups. After two initial attempts to implement the law stalled, in 2004, Resources Legacy Fund, supported by several philanthropic donors, signed a formal agreement with the State of California to coordinate an MPA planning process designed specifically to ensure the broadest public input and to reach an outcome based on the best-available science.

As Steve has noted, critical factors for overcoming polarization included:

  • The clear legal mandate provided by the Marine Life Protection Act statute itself
  • Strong and consistent political leadership from the highest levels of state government over many years
  • An inclusive and science-based planning process that empowered stakeholders with the responsibility of MPA design
  • A public-private partnership that provided financial resources but also focused oversight and management to ensure deadlines were met and outcomes achieved.

I would add to this list a final major factor leading to California’s success: it was able to draw upon the time and talent of an exceptional group of dozens of civic and community leaders from state and Tribal government and the scientific, fishing, recreation, business, and conservation communities. This group set aside personal interests, rolled up their sleeves, and worked together over an eight year period to craft the first-in-nation MPA network and then committed to the even harder task of continuing to work together to manage this MPA network effectively and cooperatively over time.

Skimmer: We are currently experiencing intense polarization - around political philosophies, belief in mainstream science, etc. – in the natural resource management and conservation field today. Do you feel that the nature of polarization around marine conservation and management has changed in the last decade?

Yaffee: It is hard to separate the decision-making context of marine conservation from more general trends over the last decade. Research confirms what we all experience daily – that changes in social media and telecommunications have led to cultural shifts that exacerbate conflict and hamper understanding. A voracious, instantaneous news cycle has driven out conditions associated with thoughtful, responsible decision making. When decision makers are constantly under the spotlight, it is hard to find room for well-meaning people to learn about issues and agree on strategies to move forward.

Information overload and the need for our single-tasking brains to multitask have affected our ability to focus rigorously on complex problems. Because people can choose among competing facts, our cognitive biases lead us to believe information that fits our preconceptions and support ideas that become linked to identities – political party, special interest faction, etc. All of this combines to promote a sense of “us versus them,” where creative middle ground solutions seem unlikely. It drives out people and organizations occupying the “strategic middle,” which fosters connections and searches for practical solutions to get past impasse and craft agreements.

While these forces affect progress on all kinds of issues, marine conservation has suffered from shifts in “boundary-spanning” institutions. Much of the story of marine ecosystem-based management and marine spatial planning has been a story of combining information and conducting planning and collaborative action at larger scales. However, a decline in federal leadership on ecosystem-scale ocean policy has reduced some of the incentives for effective transboundary action.

While these changes in culture and governance have developed measurably over the last decade, numerous opportunities and incentives exist to promote integrative decision making. As Julia Wondolleck and I catalogued in our 2017 book Marine Ecosystem-Based Management in Practice: Different Pathways, Common Lessons and is described in detail in Beyond Polarization, examples of successful collaborative decision making exist. Enough research has taken place so that we have a rich understanding of the factors that enable it. Great tools exist for collaborative planning and research. An understanding of large-scale issues like sea level rise and climate justice can be used as “common enemies” to mobilize forces across geographies and cultures. Plus, otters, sea lions, kelp forests, reefs, and healthy coastal communities provide powerful images that can empower a shared search for ways forward.

The decline in federal leadership has opened the possibility for innovation and creativity from other sources: state and local government, regional groups of agencies and governors, innovative coalitions and partnerships, and international institutions. Conservation entrepreneurs can leverage these countervailing forces against the societal forces that are promoting polarization and impasse and can craft the understanding and will to act. At times, their efforts may feel like swimming upstream against very strong currents, but as is seen in the creation of the California MPAs, the ends are worth it.

Gaffney: Unfortunately, as Steve notes, at the federal level, polarization has gotten much worse in the past few years and there have been significant rollbacks of bedrock environmental laws and regulations and gutting of key protections for marine and land national monuments.

By contrast, in California, we have been fortunate to see business and conservation interests and bipartisan voices willing to come together around some key conservation issues like climate legislation and banning new offshore oil drilling. While the MPA network planning process was at times very contentious, over the past decade a strong partnership approach to managing the new protected areas has emerged. We now have sport and commercial fishermen active in scientific monitoring of MPAs, state park rangers providing an online MPA curriculum to tens of thousands of school children, and the state providing funds for a Tribal Marine Stewards Network pilot project to support tribal engagement in MPA monitoring and stewardship. Over the past decade, California has been able to convert much of the historic polarization around MPAs into constructive engagement on a range of ocean management issues.

One great example is the MPA Collaborative Network which was formed in 2013, just after the statewide MPA network was completed. Stakeholders were so heavily involved in the MPA design phase that there was a strong interest in ensuring local constituents could continue to have a voice in the ongoing management of their local MPAs. Now 14 county-based “Collaboratives” provide a forum for nonprofits, fishermen, tribal representatives, government staff, municipalities, academic institutions, citizen scientists, teachers, aquariums, and others to work together to enhance awareness and understanding about MPAs, promote their appropriate use, and ensure compliance with MPA regulations. By working together, these diverse stakeholders have built common ground that has benefits that extend far beyond MPAs.

Skimmer: Could the California MLPA Initiative succeed now?

Gaffney: California’s MPA network is one of the state’s most significant conservation success stories, and it built upon a long history of conservation leadership in the state. Passage of the Marine Life Protection Act itself had bipartisan support in the state legislature, and the state’s MPA planning process was launched under Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, completed under Democratic Governor Jerry Brown, and is now being implemented under Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom. As Beyond Polarization makes clear, MPA planning in California was complex and at times controversial, with differing viewpoints about the value of MPAs, the best places to protect, and the most appropriate regulations to apply.

That said, Californians love their coast. And while public support for MPAs was high when the Marine Life Protection Act was passed in 1999, it has grown in recent years. The 2020 annual survey on Californians and the Environment conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California found that more than ninety percent of Californians say that the condition of the ocean and beaches is important to California’s future economy and quality of life and that they support maintaining existing rules and boundaries for national marine sanctuaries and MPAs. This support spans political parties, gender, age, ethnicities, and inland as well as coastal geographies. There has also been an ever-growing body of international science and policy supporting MPAs as a necessary tool for protecting biodiversity, particularly given the serious and growing impacts of climate change on ocean ecosystems and species. International experts are now calling for 30% of ocean waters to be protected in MPAs. California was ahead of the curve when it adopted a science-based network of MPAs more than two decades ago, but if it had not done so then, I am confident it would be doing so now.

Yaffee: It is hard to run history backwards, and some of today’s conditions represent direct or indirect outcomes of the MLPA Initiative. New data, science, and tools were sponsored by the Initiative and helped it move forward. Advocates were empowered, and institutional and leadership changes at the state level co-evolved with the Initiative. Absent the eight years of the Initiative, some of these elements might not be in place, though others – particularly the MPA science and tools, state support for environmental values, and national and international recognition of the value of MPAs -- would have developed on their own and would have accelerated a push for MPA designation.

Several unique aspects of today’s context might have made it harder: federal agencies that were supportive of new MPAs during the Initiative might have been directed to obstruct the process and the forces that have heightened polarization (described above) might have made opposition campaigns more successful. Plus, if we add in the pandemic, a limited ability to build face-to-face relationships over meals and through negotiations might have made collaborative decision making harder, even with the distance-shrinking magic of Zoom. Still, Kaitilin (Gaffney) is absolutely right that the bottom-line conditions in California that fostered action – a strong identity with the coast; motivated political leadership; philanthropic, scientific and conservation communities that are extraordinarily capable, among others – would have likely combined to enable a designation process today.

Skimmer: Based on your experiences with the California MLPA Initiative as well as other conservation and management initiatives, what suggestions do you have for today’s practitioners for achieving conservation and management policy success?

Gaffney: At the global level we are facing what feel like unprecedented challenges on so many fronts: a pandemic, an economic crisis, continued racial and social injustice, and the existential threat of climate change. While the sheer number and severity of these crises could be paralyzing, history shows us that even in the most difficult times, leadership and vision can advance large-scale environmental successes with far-reaching ecological, social, and economic benefits. During the Great Depression, newly elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Civilian Conservation Corps and put millions of Americans to work on environmental projects, aiding economic and social recovery by creating new jobs and developing new skills, but also making lasting contributions to forest management, flood control, and the development of state and national parks. During this period of extreme economic hardship, the federal government took steps to protect areas now included in Kings Canyon, Olympic, Dry Tortugas, Isle Royale, Capitol Reef, and Channel Islands National Parks.

The MLPA Initiative is another great example of the truism that times of great challenge also present opportunities for leadership. Amid widespread layoffs and the precipitous plunge of our nation’s economy during the Great Recession, philanthropic partners committed support to the MLPA Initiative. Key gubernatorial, legislative, and agency leaders kept an eye on the MLPA Initiative’s long-term goals and were steadfast in their support, even when faced with political opposition and serious fiscal challenges. In 2012, California completed the first MPA network in the nation, protecting almost 17 percent of state’s nearshore ocean waters and that investment is now paying dividends in healthier, more resilient ecosystems; diversified coastal economies; and rebounding fisheries. Other states and nations are now looking to California’s example as they explore plans to protect their ocean resources.

I encourage colleagues seeking to advance conservation in these daunting times to be bold, to prioritize long-term planning, to seek to leverage private funds with public resources, to pursue partnership with the broadest possible array of allies, and to fully address equity and social justice to ensure conservation benefits to all.

Yaffee: I appreciate Kaitilin’s call for bold, visionary leadership even in these daunting times. Indeed, with the possibility of major political change not too far in the future, I am more hopeful today that we will see a recommitment to a set of shared public values leading to significant public policy shifts. While the MLPA Initiative represented the kind of outside-the-box, visionary efforts that Kaitilin calls for, I would note that vision and leadership on their own are not enough. The Initiative drew on the creative, strategic, and very hard work of many people, many of whom paid close attention to the details of moving from vision to impact.

If there is one subtext of the story told in Beyond Polarization, it is that Process Matters! And process leaders and agency staff need to improve their skills at crafting and managing complex science-intensive, conflict-laden processes. It is not enough to get a law framed well or secure a solid scientific basis for decision-making. Building effective relationships and institutions; developing the understanding, capacity, and motivation of agency staff and stakeholders; supporting and energizing their creative efforts; and mobilizing the political will to follow through are all critical to achieving change. Julia Wondolleck and I have pointed to the importance of both the “bricks” and the “mortar” of conservation. The bricks are the seemingly tangible elements such as organizational structures, laws, and science; the mortar emphasizes the motivation, commitment, and energy that sticks all of this together to achieve outcomes. Both are needed to achieve success. Beyond Polarization tells the rich saga of how one effort in California put all of this together. People seeking to achieve transformative change elsewhere should learn from its history, which is an unlikely but ultimately empowering story.

Interested in learning more? OCTO (The Skimmer’s parent organization) recently hosted a webinar with Steven Yaffee and Kaitilin Gaffney on the new book Beyond Polarization and the MLPA Initiative.

Figure credits:

Figure 1: Intertidal MPA monitoring, PISCO.
Figure 2: Kelp forest MPA monitoring, Reef Check California.
Figure 3: Interpretive MPA signage
Figure 4: Cooperative MPA monitoring program with recreational fishermen, CCFRP Moss Landing.
Figure 5: Beyond Polarization book cover.

Some more climate change-related news and resources:

Some more plastic pollution-related news and resources:

Some more fishing and aquaculture-related news and resources:

Some more deep-sea and seabed-related news and resources:

Some more coral reef-related news and resources:

And some other recent news articles that caught our attention:

Editor’s note: In our last issue, The Skimmer heard from coastal and marine tourism operators and experts from around the world (including Indonesia, Brazil, the Mediterranean, and the US) about the diverse ways that the COVID-19 pandemic is currently affecting coastal and marine tourism, how it is likely to change coastal and marine tourism in the future, and what impacts this is likely to have on coastal and marine ecosystems. We received comments from additional experts about how the pandemic is affecting other communities such as the surfing community and British Columbia, Canada, and aspects of coastal/marine tourism such as beach management.

Lindsay Usher: Surfing in the time of coronavirus

Editor’s note: Lindsay Usher is associate professor of park, recreation, and tourism studies at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, US.

The surfing community has been on a rollercoaster since the COVID-19 pandemic came to the United States. On March 19, California issued a stay-at-home order, and some surf communities, such as San Diego, closed their beaches to everyone. Other localities, such as Ventura County, closed their parking lots but still allowed exercise on the beach and in the water. As governors across the country began issuing stay-at-home orders, there was considerable confusion at some beaches about whether surfing was allowed. For instance:

  • The City of Virginia Beach (in the state of Virginia) had to clarify its rules the day after issuing them to state that surfing was allowed because it was considered exercise.
  • The Surfrider Foundation, an environmental organization based in the US that was started by surfers, rolled out the #stayhomeshredlater hashtag campaign to encourage surfers to honor the stay-at-home orders
  • Surfline, a popular surf forecasting website, started the #shredathome hashtag campaign and featured movies and other digital content for surfers stuck in their homes. The site also featured an article from the chief lifeguard in San Diego arguing that surfers should not paddle out during the pandemic because they might strain first responder resources if they got into trouble.

As organizations like Surfrider and Surfline tried to follow the science to develop their stances on surfing, the scientific community was beginning to study the virus and ways it could be transmitted. Once scientific findings became available (e.g., the virus likely could not be transmitted through spray from a breaking wave; it was not as likely to be transmitted via touching surfaces; etc.) and governments began loosening restrictions, the surf world modified its guidance. Surfrider changed its hashtag campaign to #shredsafely, and Surfline began providing more detailed forecasts.

Amid all this were regular surfers who had to navigate new local, state, and federal guidelines and advice from their own organizations and websites. I began a study (ongoing) in mid-April to understand surfers’ experiences of the pandemic and the ensuing regulations around the world. We have learned that some surfers were confused about whether they should be going surfing, even if it was allowed. If they were supposed to stay at home, did that mean they could only surf if they could walk or bike to the beach? Some would try to get to the beach before lifeguards or law enforcement began to patrol (8 or 9am). One participant went at night because there was a bioluminescence event occurring during a full moon in California. Others felt guilty for surfing if their beach was open because they knew many beaches were closed. Surfers’ interactions with others changed: they did not hang around the parking lot to talk to friends after surfing. Many surfers had their surf travel plans disrupted.

The regulations frustrated some because surfing is a naturally socially distant activity – surfers dislike crowds and try to avoid being within 6 feet of one another when there is not a pandemic. For surfers who were not allowed to surf, they did other activities to stay sane and in shape: prone paddling, skateboarding, biking, and yoga are a few examples. For many who were able to go surfing, it was a way to relieve stress and cope with the stay-at-home orders that altered everyone’s way of life. As more states have opened up, surfers are still taking precautions, but they seem more confident that surfing is one of the safest activities they can engage in right now.

Ulsía Urrea Mariño: Reopening beaches during the COVID-19 pandemic

Editor’s note: Ulsía Urrea Mariño is a doctoral student at the Harte Research Institute of Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi and a lecturer in the sustainable management of coastal zones at National Autonomous University of Mexico. She is also a member of the Ibero-American Beach Management and Certification Network (PROPLAYAS) and Altamare SC where she participated in creation of recommendations and guidelines for reopening Mexican beaches.

The COVID-19 pandemic is indeed an event unprecedented in the last 100 years, and social life on the planet has been disrupted. Beaches – spaces in which economic and recreational activities related to tourism take place – are no exception. Tourism is the economic activity most affected by mandatory lockdowns, travel restrictions, and the business closures to avoid the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

It is also true that this new reality allows us to look at the practices that seem ‘common’ and discuss them. In the case of beach management, this new scenario has been called ‘the New Normality in Beaches,’ and it seeks to rescue the good practices of conventional beach management, innovate in the measures that the pandemic imposes, and rethink how we interact on and with the beach.

Of the good practices of conventional beach management, several elements are rescued:

  1. Full identification of beach operators at the local level
  2. Solid waste management
  3. Cleaning schemes (continuous and emerging)
  4. Surveillance schemes
  5. Signage to provide relevant information to visitors
  6. Environmental education campaigns
  7. Maintenance of water quality for human activities
  8. Certification schemes
  9. Construction and maintenance of beach accesses
  10. Construction and maintenance of necessary infrastructure such as lifeguard towers, bathrooms, parking lots, and information kiosks, among others.

Nevertheless, the first question to be addressed is how these elements common to beach management need to be modified in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some examples include:

  1. Full identification of beach operators at the local level: If we take Mexico as an example, beaches are administered and managed by municipalities. However, not all beaches in a municipality have management schemes. Usually, the management is for urban or tourist beaches. Thus, of the 11,500+ linear kilometers of beaches in Mexico, just under 100 have a certification such as Blue Flag or White Flag (granted by the Mexican government).
  2. Solid waste management: Before the pandemic, solid waste management did not include biologically infectious waste such as masks or gloves. In this new scenario, one must have a mask to access any public space, and the beach is no exception. The challenge is to make sure this waste is disposed of correctly, including environmental education campaigns to raise awareness.
  3. Cleaning schemes (continuous and emerging): Although there are more questions than answers regarding the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in seawater and sand, taking measures to sanitize the sand with chemical products such as bleach is an undesirable practice on beaches. On the other hand, cleaning beach furniture, kiosks, and bathrooms more regularly is wise.
  4. Surveillance schemes: In addition to surveillance tasks to ensure the safety of beach visitors, during the pandemic it is necessary to monitor beach access and social distancing to ensure compliance with necessary sanitary measures. Periodic drone flight systems and the refinement of user counting systems have been implemented for these purposes.
  5. The use of signage to provide relevant information about the beach in particular to visitors: As a result of the pandemic, signage has changed to include messages about ‘the correct use of the mask,’ ‘walkable spaces and rest spaces on the beach,’ ‘social distancing,’ and ‘number of visitors to the beach in real-time’ to name a few.
  6. Construction and maintenance of access to beaches: More and more beach operators, at various levels of government, have developed mobile and web applications that allow beach users to reserve their spaces (as in South Korea) or provide real-time information about the capacity of beaches (Portugal, South Korea, and Argentina). In South Korea, the mobile application generates a QR code that allows beachgoers to be contacted if there is a COVID-19 outbreak associated with the beach they visited.

As we have seen, conventional beach management measures have remained, but have changed to meet the needs imposed by the pandemic. Will these emerging measures be sustained over time, even when the pandemic is over? Will these emerging measures become permanent? Of course, each beach is a different reality, and some will incorporate – while others will not – the emerging measures in their permanent beach management schemes.

Ronnie Noonan: Tracking the use of ocean spaces during the pandemic

Editor’s notes: Ronnie Noonan is the marine science communications director at eOceans. eOceans is a collaborative scientific initiative based in Canada that works to inform ocean conservation with crowd-sourced information.

We launched our global project “Our Ocean in COVID-19” project – which involves a new mobile app and analytics platform – early in the pandemic to support ocean researchers and explorers in tracking the ocean during the pandemic. The project is led by 28 researchers in 14 countries (and counting), including Australia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Iceland, Indonesia, Netherlands, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Mozambique, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Thailand, and Timor-Leste. We are collaborating with local marine tourism operators and ocean organizations to spread the word about the project and increase awareness and participation. Through this project, we are studying how policies that control human movement and use of the ocean – ranging from full prohibitions on people leaving their homes to restricted ocean access points and tourism to no closures or restrictions at all – change over time and impact social, anthropogenic, and ecological patterns at local and global scales.

Our goal is to help communities track how ocean usage, wildlife encounters, and anthropogenic impacts (such as pollution) change over the course of the pandemic and on into the new normal. We hypothesize that the response of coastal and marine tourism will depend on each area’s restrictions on human confinement. In Atlantic Canada, there was a large influx of beach goers in March (which is very cold!) when businesses initially shut down. Of course, that shifted again when confinement policies became stricter and beaches closed. Now that both beaches and businesses have re-opened in Atlantic Canada, we will be looking to see how ocean usage, wildlife observations, and anthropogenic impacts change. [On a personal note, I have never had more beach days in a summer!]

These behavior changes may not only highlight how important coastlines and oceans are to people at this time but may also provide early insights into how tourism and ocean use patterns will change in the coming years. For instance, the demand for tourism may start to correspond to fluctuations in pandemic restrictions and less on seasonality, and coastal and marine tourism may cease completely in some areas that do not have alternative economic sources or in areas that cannot rely on local customers.

While the lack of tourism is hard on developed countries, it is devastating to many developing countries. Tourism is the main economic driver for many small, coastal communities. Without the influx of funds from tourism, residents are returning to unsustainable and destructive fishing practices for subsistence, and many communities are seeing outsiders come to fish in their waters illegally, including in marine protected areas. Marine tourism operators are concerned for the well-being of their ecosystems and fear that areas may become too degraded to attract tourists in the future. These communities also rely heavily on tourism to fund conservation efforts. Without this funding, protected areas cannot be enforced, and decades of effort are at risk of being lost.

Our project is also tracking wildlife interactions during this time. Where human confinement is strictest and enforced, we expect wildlife observations to increase. If you would like to get involved, please visit to learn more. Every observation is useful, even if it is just an empty beach!

June Pretzer: The view from British Columbia, Canada

Editor’s note: June Pretzer works in ecological restoration on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada, and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in environmental management and sustainability at Royal Roads University with a focus on restoration of coastal ecosystem services.

If you looked across the Strait of Juan de Fuca a year ago, freighters would be plying their way to Vancouver ports, cruise ships would be tying up at Ogden Point in Victoria, and international pleasure craft ranging from small sailboats to super-yachts would be a common site. Today, not so much.

The Canadian provincial and Federal response to COVID-19 was swift, implementing measures to protect communities from infection while laying out plans for gradual reopening. British Columbia declared a State of Emergency, mandated physical distancing, encouraged hand washing and wearing face masks, and prohibited gatherings of more than 50 people. The Federal government banned entry by foreign nationals, closed the Canada-US border, and mandated self-isolation for all returning travelers. Transport Minister Marc Garneau issued an order banning cruise ships from operating in Canadian waters until October 31, 2020. BC Ferries reduced service by half, and Canadians were encouraged to socialize within a bubble of family and selected others to ‘flatten the curve’. These measures prevented rapid spread of the virus so that in British Columbia we are now in Stage Three of a four-stage approach to re-opening.

Health guidelines and measures such as Transport Canada’s COVID-19 guidelines that specified the maximum number of persons allowed per vessel had an immediate impact on marine tourism, effectively shutting down all marine operations, parks, and accommodations. While some marine operators such as Prince of Whales Whale Watching in Victoria continued to operate with greatly reduced passenger numbers, increased sanitization between trips, and higher overall costs, some marine operators that offered overnight sail tours shut down operation for the summer. The complete lack of cruise ships was definitely a game changer for the Victoria Harbour Authority that had over 260 ship visits and over 1 million cruise ship passengers and crew visits in 2019 – double the population of Vancouver Island. For many people working in the marine tourism industry, this is not a summer to get rich.

However, there are good things. British Columbians who might head off to distant places are instead heading to local seas, woods, and wineries for a taste of summer. They are turning to personal watercraft such as paddle boards and kayaks to bring them closer to nature. Paddle-powered vessels impact marine wildlife less than motorized vessels and they are accessible to a wide level of abilities. Tour operators are adjusting to COVID guidelines through new and innovative operations. PacificSUP Victoria’s (Stand up Paddle Boards) mobile business plan provides contactless board delivery and sanitized gear to beach or lake locations with rentals, lessons, and tours. Such a mobile business model uses no land-based resources and has a smaller environmental footprint. Phil Foster of West Coast Outdoor Adventure sees day tours usurping overnight trips and is training students to meet the higher demand. Moving to Stage Three of the British Columbia Restart Program means eateries can reopen with social distancing guidelines and no-touch QR Code-generated menus. People are rethinking what our new normal can be and looking for opportunities to adapt. We have even learned how to keep a safe distance at the beach.

There are also expected benefits to marine wildlife and coastal seascapes. Reduction in marine traffic has reduced discharge from ships as well as marine noise levels. Reduction in vessels such as cruise ships reduces exposure of all marine life to an estimated 32 billion liters of potentially dangerous sewage, greywater, and washwater discharged annually in British Columbia coastal waters. Based on hydrophonic records, Oceanwise reports a reduction in marine noise levels throughout British Columbia marine waters. Marine noise from shipping interferes with marine mammal communication, and a reduction in both of these factors means a respite for marine life ranging from southern resident orcas to filter feeders.

As we move into Stage Three, parks and businesses are re-opening. With social distancing, regular hand hygiene, and a general acceptance of when and where to mask up, British Columbians are adapting to our new normal. This is not to say that challenges will not continue for the marine tourism industry. However, the general consensus is that COVID-19 is here to stay for a while at least, so if we want to survive, we had best practice some adaptive management and look for innovative ways to move forward. With our beautiful coastline to explore and the general need to ‘get outside’, tourism will change and adapt and may be better for doing so.

The author thanks the following people for sharing their observations and experiences: Phil Foster of West Coast Adventures, Ian McPhee of Prince of Whales Whale Watching, Oceanwise, Jacklyn Barr of WWF, and Rhonda Ready.

Briana Bombana: Three scenarios for beach management in the pandemic and recovery

Editor’s note: Briana Bombana is an oceanographer and researcher with the SGR INTERFASE Research Group at the Autonomous University of Barcelona and a consultant with Santosantos Tourism Care. She is also a member of the Ibero-American Beach Management and Certification Network (PROPLAYAS) and one of the editors/authors of the PROPLAYAS recommendations for sun and beach tourism in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the present year, the Sars-COV-2 virus has been a different sort of ‘visitor’ that has led authorities to impose mobility and social restrictions on most of the human population to curb its contagion. In the case of mass tourism, the consequences of these restrictions are widely distributed between harms and benefits – for example, the loss of jobs that have negatively impacted tourism infrastructure and services and the simultaneous recovery of some cultural and natural assets. While these outcomes are not yet fully evaluated, we can say that the pandemic has already defied the certainty of a continuous flow of people and resources around the globe, the base of mass tourism.

To tackle the current urgency and help design management actions for tourist beaches, the Ibero-American Beach Management and Certification Network (PROPLAYAS) approximated three possible scenarios and general recommendations for the pandemic and recovery, following a potential vaccine. These scenarios are:

  • Pessimistic scenario: Epidemiologic risks remain as does fear of social contact, perpetuating biosecurity measures and beach use restrictions, potentially leading to privatization practices, exclusion of informal workers and small businesses, unemployment, and other conflicts.
  • Trending scenario: Gradually the ‘normality’ from before the pandemic returns. Initially there is a boom of beach users from the local area; then national tourism returns, followed by international tourism. In this scenario, with the exception of biosecurity measures, management actions common to mass tourism centralized on recreational activities remain the same. Income and profits recover, pressuring natural and cultural assets.
  • Optimistic scenario: A new paradigm for beach tourism emerges after learning from this crisis. It aims for resilience by promoting cultural and ecological conservation practices on beaches that are integrated with the management of the surrounding area. In addition, public access and health care are pursued.

Regarding the recommendations, an evaluation of their usefulness is advised for each case. Most of them target the optimistic scenario, such as a shift to a ‘slow’ tourism focused on nearby places and in which cooperation between informal workers and small businesses could be endured.

Figure credits:

Figure 1: Photo courtesy of Lindsay Usher.
Figure 2: From the "Liable coastal county” infographic series by Altamare SC, previously published on social media. Figure courtesy of Ulsía Urrea Mariño.
Figure 3: Figure courtesy of eOceans.
Figure 4: Photo by June Pretzer, MSc Candidate, Royal Roads University.
Figure 5: Adapted from the Proplayas report and subsequent discussions within this Network. Figure courtesy of Briana Bombana.