December 2020 - January 2021 (14:2)

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It has been a long four years for those in the environmental field here in the US four years filled with rampant attempts by the Trump administration to remove, weaken, or circumvent environmental protections; promotion of climate science denialism; and obstruction of efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This amplified the relentless, global march of climate change and its associated natural disasters and was all topped off by a worldwide pandemic and recession.

The incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris promises a significant shift in policies in many areas, including ocean management – but what exactly needs to be done and how likely are changes to occur? We hear from eight US ocean policy experts about what they expect and/or hope for in terms of US ocean management under the incoming Biden-Harris administration.

Have another perspective or want to comment on a perspective provided here? Leave your input in the Comments section!

Jay Austin, Environmental Law Institute: The Biden-Harris administration will have a chance to take decisive action on offshore drilling

Editor’s note: Jay Austin is a senior attorney at the nonpartisan Environmental Law Institute (ELI) and an advisor to ELI’s Ocean Program. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent those of the Institute or the Program.

Having pledged to “transition away from the oil industry,” President-elect Biden will get a chance to take decisive action on offshore drilling. We’ve been whipsawed from the Obama administration’s leasing program for 2017-2022, which placed 94% of outer continental shelf resources off-limits, to the Trump administration’s draft 2019-2024 program, which initially proposed to open up more than 90%. Amid this reversal and an intensifying climate crisis, Biden’s offshore solution may closely track his promise to end new leases on all federal lands.

That promise was aided by an uncharacteristic gift: during a frenetic September campaign swing through the Southeast, President Trump announced his own 10-year bans on leasing in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and off the Atlantic coasts of Florida, Georgia, South and North Carolina. (He also claimed he’d extend the bans to Virginia, but it’s unclear if such an order was ever issued.) Stronger than executive orders, these withdrawals under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act are likely to persist – but may also complicate the picture for offshore wind energy.

Depending on the outcome of litigation, the Biden-Harris administration should also be able to preserve Obama’s similar withdrawals of offshore zones in the Northeast Atlantic and in 98% of US Arctic waters. Blue state politics will ensure that West Coast drilling remains taboo. That leaves portions of Alaskan and Gulf waters, where leasing continues apace despite a weak oil market and waning industry interest.

Even if the Trump leasing program gets finalized as a “midnight rule,” Biden can suspend or repeal it and eventually alter the landscape. He could address recent leases and existing wells with tighter regulation and enforcement, including reinstating something like the 2016 Well Control Rule, a direct response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster that Trump first profligately waived and then drastically revised. More comprehensive changes might require Congressional action, but these steps would demonstrate that the adage “elections have consequences” applies offshore as well as on land.

Margaret Spring, Monterey Bay Aquarium: Environmental decision-making will once again be based in science

Editor’s note: Margaret Spring is chief conservation and science officer of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, a non-profit public aquarium in Monterey, California known for its regional focus on the marine habitats of Monterey Bay

The incoming Biden-Harris administration understands how important the ocean and coasts are to people and the planet. President-elect Joe Biden brings hands-on experience linking economic recovery to environmental benefits and understands how ocean restoration can generate both jobs and national security. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris is an experienced prosecutor who has fought against polluters and on behalf of communities. In 2011, I was part of a delegation of government officials who stood with her – in her then-position as Attorney General of California – to announce that the owners of the M/V Cosco Busan would pay $44 million for oil spill impacts flowing from San Francisco Bay.

Biden is rightly making climate a top priority, tapping former Secretary of State John Kerry as climate envoy. Kerry is an undisputed leader in climate action and ocean conservation – which I know firsthand from working for him in the Senate. He is experienced at bringing the ocean into major global negotiations, and he joined our Monterey Bay Aquarium team in hosting a day of discussions around the ocean-climate connection at California’s 2018 Global Climate Action Summit.

In the months ahead, we expect the incoming administration to staff top federal positions with the nation’s leading scientists and experts, many of whom are well connected with the network of US-based ocean conservation organizations and researchers. NOAA is predicted to play a prominent role given its science and climate assets. This means the ocean community has an opportunity to support the administration as we rebuild the economy.

We expect to see restoration of environmental protections that have been weakened over the last four years as well as solutions that link ocean health with the wellbeing of our communities, including food security, with a much-needed lens on racial equity and social justice. We expect that environmental decision-making will once again be based in science; and that the administration will rejoin the global fight to reduce carbon emissions and transition to clean energy.

The Aquarium looks forward to working with an administration that recognizes the gravity of the climate crisis and of other threats to our ocean, such as plastic pollution, overfishing, and damaging resource extraction operations like offshore oil and gas drilling. And we anticipate a willingness to leverage science to solve the biggest problems facing the ocean – and global humanity.

Having spent years in Washington, I know the going will not be easy. A hostile Senate can delay or even block important appointments, a divided Congress can prevent the funding of key initiatives, and investigations and attacks on science can stall progress. However, Biden’s long history of bipartisan relationships, the urgent social and economic needs arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, and an engaged voting public can counter these forces at key moments. The incoming administration has some hard work ahead to build back our nation’s health, our economy, and public confidence in the role of government. That will require partners from all sectors and across the political spectrum – which is often a hallmark of the ocean community. We stand ready to be part of that effort.

Val Stori, Clean Energy Group/Clean Energy States Alliance: To ramp up offshore wind, the incoming administration needs to do these four things

Editor’s note: Val Stori is project director for the Clean Energy Group/Clean Energy States Alliance. Clean Energy Group/Clean Energy States Alliance is a national, non-profit coalition of public agencies and organizations working together to advance clean energy.

We are hopeful that the new presidential administration will make addressing climate change a top priority by supporting offshore wind, a renewable energy technology with great potential to supply significant clean energy to high-value locations. To ramp up offshore wind energy production, the incoming administration needs to direct the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and other federal agencies to:

  • Streamline permitting
  • Identify new lease areas
  • Work with state governments, and
  • Invest in research and development to support a pipeline of projects.

The identification of future lease areas as well as a pipeline of projects would not only send a strong signal to investors for the rapid scale-up of clean, emissions-free energy, but also would help states plan and potentially coordinate offshore transmission. Increased coordination between federal and state agencies is critical to identifying lease areas and to leasing and permitting those areas within timeframes that enable states to meet their state renewable energy goals.

Lane Johnston, Responsible Offshore Development Alliance: US offshore wind development may proceed at an unrestrained pace to address climate change

Editor’s note: Lane Johnston is programs manager for the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance (RODA). RODA is a coalition of fishing industry associations and fishing companies with an interest in improving the compatibility of new offshore development with their businesses.

As we go into a new administration, how to meaningfully and quickly address climate change re-enters the public discourse, and there is both excitement and concern that US offshore wind (OSW) development will proceed at an unrestrained pace. The increasing pressure on the Biden administration to address climate change, invest in renewable energy sources, and set an example on the international stage through these efforts is vital – but development should proceed thoughtfully. Developing new industries should be looked at closely and holistically to ensure efforts do not evolve without a full understanding of the environmental, social, and economic consequences that they will bear.

We have yet to see approval of a commercial scale OSW project in federal waters. In 2020, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) initiated a cumulative impact analysis looking at the large-scale effects of the leased OSW development areas off of Southern New England and the Mid-Atlantic. While conducting more research and applying funding to better understand resources that may be impacted is commendable, this should not be the green light indicator for all projects moving forward. OSW developers and regulatory agencies must engage at the local, state, and regional scale throughout lifespan of a lease.

All the changes, positive and negative, that will come with OSW development are hard to put into a single formula. For renewable energy projects to be successful, it is important to be transparent and realistic about the foreseeable impacts and be willing to put research dollars into investigating the impacts we do not yet know. Hopefully, the new administration will prioritize using the best available science to de-conflict where possible and mitigate when necessary.

Sarah Chasis, Natural Resources Defense Council: NOAA should take immediate action to combat Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated fishing outside the US

Editor’s note: Sarah Chasis is senior strategist for oceans at Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). NRDC in a non-profit that works to ensure the rights of all people to clean air, clean water, and healthy communities

We hope the Biden-Harris administration leads on ocean issues, in the US and internationally. First and foremost, we expect serious action to address climate change, which is already significantly impacting ocean health through warming, acidification, and deoxygenation. To address this, we must shift from fossil fuels – including ending offshore oil and gas leasing in federal waters – toward renewable energy sources like responsibly-developed offshore wind.

We can help make the ocean “climate ready” by designating strong marine protected areas – the sea’s equivalent of a Yellowstone or Grand Canyon National Park. Protecting a range of ocean areas can protect and restore the vitality of these ecosystems and increase their ability to withstand the stresses of climate change. The US should adopt and implement a goal of strongly protecting at least 30 percent of our ocean by 2030 – including by restoring protections for the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument (whose protections were rolled back by the Trump administration) – and support adoption of a similar global ocean goal enforced by a protective high seas treaty.

We expect the restoration of a culture of scientific integrity among political employees at NOAA. On fisheries, NOAA and other agencies should take immediate action to combat Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing outside the US, which threatens global fishery sustainability and often is accompanied by forced labor, human trafficking, and other human rights violations. As part of this, the US Seafood Important Monitoring Program should be expanded to apply to all fish and fish products entering the US and its implementation, documentation, and traceability requirements strengthened. The US should also utilize the provisions of the High Seas Driftnet Fishing Moratorium Protection Act to combat IUU fishing. For domestic fisheries, we hope to see renewed commitment to ending overfishing and rebuilding depleted fish stocks, increased scientific support to promote climate ready fisheries and help fisheries managers address shifting fish stocks, and better protection of essential fish habitat.

Kirsten Grorud-Colvert, Oregon State University: Establish fully and highly protected areas in more US regions to meet the 30% goal

Editor’s note: Kirsten Grorud-Colvert is an associate professor in the Department of Integrative Biology at Oregon State University.

The Biden-Harris administration is leading with a focus on ocean-based climate solutions, biodiversity conservation, and environmental justice. The opportunities to effect positive change across these are many. Among them, the president-elect has set the goal of “Protecting biodiversity, slowing extinction rates and helping leverage natural climate solutions by conserving 30% of America’s lands and waters by 2030.” But how would conserving 30% of the ocean link biodiversity, climate, and justice? And how could the administration innovate to get there?

The type and location of protection matters: Currently NOAA’s National MPA Center reports that 26% of US waters are in Marine Protected Areas. Of that, 23% is fully protected (where all extractive and destructive activities are prohibited) or highly protected (where extraction is so light as to have minimal impact on biodiversity conservation). The outcomes of fully and highly protected MPAs are well-documented by research through the decades: among them, greater abundance and diversity of species, spillover to outside areas, and ecosystem-level effects that can confer resilience in a changing ocean. MPAs remain one of the best place-based strategies for conserving biodiversity and the storehouse of genetic adaptation it holds for an uncertain future in a changing climate. Yet full and high protection in the US is concentrated in one region – the US Pacific Islands. Less than 1% of the ocean in all other US regions is fully or highly protected, leaving those key species, habitats, and ecosystems vulnerable.

Opportunity: Establish fully and highly protected areas in more US regions to meet the 30% goal with quality protection for biodiversity and its benefits for climate adaptation.

How protection is planned and managed matters: MPAs can also be tools for environmental justice, but only if they are established with the key conditions needed to enable fairness, collaboration, and benefits-sharing across groups, including those historically excluded from decision-making. Time and again MPAs that are successful at conserving biodiversity are linked to key social factors such as integration of local knowledge, recognition of pre-existing rights and human uses, and collaboration with local organizations and communities in planning, monitoring, and management (see here, here, and here). In turn the ecological return from effective MPAs can also support human wellbeing, for example through community cohesion, increases in catch per unit effort, and/or higher income.

Opportunity: Move forward to meet the 30% goal by actively involving local voices, diverse groups, and different types of knowledge.

MPAs are just one tool in a whole-ocean approach to sustainable management – albeit a powerful one. Under the new administration, there is an opportunity to use MPAs to protect more ocean, and to include, benefit, and safeguard more people than ever before.

Sarah Winter Whelan, Healthy Oceans Coalition: The new administration needs to reinforce and build upon existing regional governance collaborations

Editor’s note: Sarah Winter Whelan is executive director of the Healthy Oceans Coalition, a national network of ocean lovers dedicated to preventing the exploitation, destruction, and neglect of our ocean, coasts, and Great Lakes.

The United States stands at the edge of a climate and biodiversity crisis. We face serious challenges to our ocean’s health. and the livelihoods and way of life it supports. The Biden-Harris administration should center on ocean justice, as developed by Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, as it unwinds four years of conservation rollbacks and refocuses federal ocean policy and planning on ocean health, ecosystem stewardship, and adaptation and mitigation of climate change. The administration needs to reinforce and build upon existing regional governance collaborations like Regional Ocean Partnerships – comprised of coastal state governments, federal agencies, Tribes, and fisheries managers – to support a strengthened and sustainable ocean policy and economy. The administration needs to ensure that Tribal Nations are included in governance with equal parity to state and federal representatives. The administration must also foster greater stakeholder engagement and diversity in decision-making and encourage all levels of government to come together to determine how we can better protect our ocean areas for the future.

Like everything, these priority policy actions require attention and funding. The administration (and Congress) needs to properly staff the nation’s Ocean Policy Committee and provide a long-term funding source for the work of regional partners. Many of these actions can happen during the incoming administration – with a commitment to advocacy by ocean policy and planning practitioners, coastal communities, and ocean stakeholders. Doing so will help restore our ocean’s wealth – both for us and for the future.

Tony MacDonald, Monmouth University Urban Coast Institute: The Biden-Harris administration need to be more ambitious and look beyond traditional thinking to achieve a sustainable ocean future

Editor’s note: Tony MacDonald is director of the Monmouth University Urban Coast Institute, a forum for research, education, and collaboration in the development and implementation of science-based policies and programs that support stewardship of healthy, productive, and resilient coastal ecosystems and communities.

There is nothing like a new presidential administration to get interest groups abuzz, sharpening their pencils and flooding the transition teams with recommendations in the hope of upping their place in line….like Oliver Twist’s “Please, sir, I want some more.” While it is important for the new administration to correct the record on the importance of oceans and environment in general and restore commitments to best available science and reasonable oversight and regulation, that will not be sufficient for proper management of our ocean. I am not suggesting that the ocean community ask for less, and I expect that I support the vast majority of the requests. Rather, I propose the administration be more ambitions and more focused on the future. The Biden-Harris administration cannot look just at traditional thinking and rely only on ocean program budget ‘plus ups’ to achieve these goals.

Indeed, although my work is largely focused on US and regional ocean management, some of the most important actions the Biden-Harris administration can take to reset US ocean policy are to rejoin the Paris Agreement and other UN efforts including the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development. Unfortunately, like the untrustworthy suitor who jilted Miss Havisham at the altar, the US is unlikely to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) given current politics. But the US can stay committed to UNCLOS norms and lead on regional area management efforts, including for the Arctic. Other ways to reassert US ocean leadership for the Blue Ocean Economy including developing offshore wind, decarbonizing shipping, and promoting resilient ocean and coastal ecosystems that support blue carbon.

In general, there needs to be a recognition that the oceans deserve a prominent seat at the overall US domestic and international policy tables and that the ocean-climate nexus needs to be embedded across the new administration’s appointments, commitments, and priorities. This work recognizes that rebuilding a prosperous economy depends on the foundation of a healthy and productive ocean. Strategic investments in technology such as satellites, earth and ocean observation systems, environmental DNA, and artificial intelligence will open new areas for the ocean economy. And investments in ocean research and exploration, as well as data and mapping initiatives such as ocean data portals, EEZ mapping, and a climate-ready fishing data infrastructure will dramatically improve ocean management and governance.

The administration’s efforts should recognize and build upon broad bipartisan support in the US Congress for ocean science and management, blue economic growth, and public-private sector-community partnerships. With the administration’s leadership and re-commitment to conservation and ecosystem protection, the current Ocean Policy Committee can be one mechanism to support these efforts. For example, the Regional Ocean Partnerships and Ocean Data Portals can help to resolve use conflicts, support environmental protection, and inform sustainable use options. This work will not be easy, but as Scrooge declaimed to the Ghost of Christmas Future, “I know your purpose is to do me good, and as I hope to live to be another man from what I was, I am prepared to bear you company, and do it with a thankful heart.” Here is to 2021 and the ocean future we want.

In 2017, MEAM (now The Skimmer on Marine Ecosystems and Management) interviewed 17 social science and interdisciplinary researchers from around the world to learn how their work could improve marine conservation and management practice. We updated this coverage in our previous issue. More examples of social science and interdisciplinary researchers doing innovative social science work to advance marine conservation and management practice are below.

Nina Rivers: Integrating Indigenous and local knowledge systems into marine spatial planning

Editor’s notes: Nina Rivers is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute for Coastal and Marine Research in the Department of Development Studies at Nelson Mandela University in South Africa. She can be contacted at nina.rivers [at]

What I am working on: I am a marine anthropologist currently investigating how a community of practice can facilitate and develop a truly co-developed marine spatial plan for Algoa Bay on the eastern coast of South Africa. My research is part of the Algoa Bay Project in which a consortium of researchers from three universities and three national research institutions are working towards a holistic and co-developed MSP which includes biophysical, legal, and socio-economic components.

Broadly, I am exploring how ocean governance can be more equitable and sustainable by accounting for local social, economic, historical, political, and cultural realities. Specific research questions include:

  1. What stakeholders should be involved in an MSP?
  2. What enables and constrains stakeholder involvement processes in area-based management (ABM) strategies (e.g., marine protected areas, marine spatial planning, and integrated coastal management) in the global South?
  3. What are the outcomes (positive and negative) linked to these factors?

Some of the methodologies used to answer these questions are a rapid stakeholder analysis of Algoa Bay stakeholders, a case study of the Algoa Bay in which various stakeholders were interviewed about their experiences of stakeholder involvement in the Algoa Bay Project to date, and a systematic literature review of global South literature focused on stakeholder involvement processes in ABM.

Preliminary results indicate that primary enablers for equitably involving stakeholders in ABM in the global South include building partnerships and trust for collaborative processes and using ABM approaches appropriate to the local social, economic, historical, political, and cultural contexts. Linked to the last finding is acknowledging and understanding how knowledge is constructed and emerges out of specific contexts, because this impacts how management practices are understood, implemented, and monitored.

In terms of constraints that hinder effective stakeholder involvement processes, global South governance systems are generally characterized by underfunded programs; lack of sufficient capacity among government authorities as well as stakeholders to meaningfully engage with ABM processes; uncoordinated legislation; time lags in implementation of legislation as well as effective mechanisms to enforce it; lack of monitoring for these initiatives; elite capture of natural resources; corruption; lack of political will; hegemonic power of international aid organizations; lack of endorsement and support from authorities of local stakeholders; exclusion of local and marginalized stakeholders; lack of trust and transparency; limited knowledge exchange; limitations of obtaining and sharing relevant data; paternalistic approaches to Integrated Ocean Management; reductionist views of stakeholders or ‘communities’; sectoral miscoordination; and political regimes that favor supporting economic growth over protecting the marginalized or the biophysical environment they rely on.

Looking ahead, my research for the following two years will investigate how indigenous and local community knowledge linked to coastal and marine ecosystems can be integrated into ABM tools. Arts-based participatory methodologies will be used to explore this question, and we will use photo stories and digital voice to record intangible local and indigenous knowledge.

Potential and observed influence: The Algoa Bay Project is piloting the development of South Africa’s first MSP and, as such, will inform how MSP is designed and implemented in the rest of the country. It is imperative to understand how indigenous and local knowledge systems can be integrated into current and future area-based ocean management strategies. This research is especially pertinent given that indigenous knowledge systems are still largely neglected in MSP.

Applicability of this work elsewhere: Lessons learned are contributing towards developing regional marine spatial planning strategies in the Western Indian Ocean (WIO) region.

Learn more: Learn more about the Algoa Bay Project here, here, and here.

Anya Phelan: Documenting how remote island communities are experiencing the marine plastic pollution crisis

Editor’s note: Anna (Anya) Phelan is a senior research fellow at The University of Queensland (UQ) and the academic coordinator for the UQ Global Change Scholars Program. She can be contacted at a.phelan [at] and on LinkedIn.

What I am working on: My research focuses on key pathways to reduce and prevent plastic pollution. The crisis facing the world’s oceans from plastics is well documented, yet there is little knowledge of the perspectives, experiences and options of the coastal communities facing overwhelming quantities of plastics on their beaches and in their fishing waters. To better understand the issue through local eyes, I recently led a study that examined the use, disposal, and local consequences of single use plastics in remote island communities in Eastern Indonesia.

Through a baseline assessment of plastic pollution literacy, we examined the knowledge and understanding of community members about the issue of plastic waste and marine plastic. Using a systems-thinking approach, we identified community mental models of factors contributing to ocean plastic pollution and the links to key livelihoods, such as fisheries, aquaculture, and tourism.

Potential and observed influence: We found that plastic waste is outpacing all mitigation efforts, and the sheer volume of plastic is overwhelming coastal regions. Increased availability of fast-moving consumer goods and rising standard of living is contributing to the escalating use of single-use plastic and packaging. Limited infrastructure, great distances, and high transportation costs make waste management a difficult issue for remote communities. Meanwhile seasonal storms inundate the coastlines with large volumes of plastic waste from other regions, leaving the island communities to shoulder the impacts of the growing problem. The research identified a complex set of factors contributing to extensive plastic leakage into the marine environment, including minimal infrastructure, institutional constraints, and lack of producer responsibility.

Our results suggest that to strengthen coastal management a circular plastic economy is greatly needed, focused on responsible supply chains and non-plastic alternatives.

Applicability of this work elsewhere: At a systems level, social and economic costs are often borne by those affected rather than those responsible for the supply of the plastics and management of the wastes. This study showed that low-resource coastal communities are forced to shoulder the impacts of the ocean plastic crisis. There are thousands of similar coastal communities in Indonesia, all struggling to cope with their own waste plus waste brought in by currents. The system results show that communities are caught in a perpetual reinforcing loop. Unless the supply changes, these communities have no hope of effectively managing their waste. Although our survey results show that plastic literacy is low, there is little the coastal communities can do unless presented with better choice architecture both on the supply side and in disposal options. For coastal communities in emerging economies the ocean plastic crisis cannot be abated without responsible supply. The study findings highlighted the integrated role that producers and manufacturers need to play to reduce plastic leakage and support marine conservation.

Learn more: Read more about this research here.

Editor’s note: Kreg Lindberg is an associate professor at the Cascades Campus of Oregon State University. He can be contacted at kreg.lindberg [at]

What I am working on: I recently worked with Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to assess well-being and resilience in Oregon coastal communities. The well-being component focused specifically on how marine reserves may affect the subjective well-being (which reflects how people experience and evaluate their lives) of coastal residents and how that effect varies across groups based on fishing employment, recreation engagement related to the reserves, and environmental worldview. The community resilience component focused on developing and applying a new measurement scale, one that measures perceived resilience rather than the more common approach of primarily measuring factors that may affect resilience.

Potential and observed influence: There are numerous evaluations of the effect of policy, environmental, and other changes on coastal communities. Those evaluations often focus on employment or income, willingness-to-pay, and other common metrics. Such metrics are important, but direct measurement of subjective well-being is less common. A novel contingent well-being approach was used to achieve such direct measurement. The method is exploratory, but our analysis suggests it can be used to understand how natural resource management actions such as marine reserve designation can impact perceptions of well-being – thereby informing the policy process.

Likewise, several measures of community resilience exist, but the mixing of resilience with the factors affecting it hinders understanding of the importance of those factors. For example, several measures use resident perceptions of strong community leadership as an indicator of resilience, but strong leadership is a potential factor affecting community resilience. If leadership is modeled as an indicator of resilience, it is difficult to simultaneously assess its role as a factor affecting resilience. Our thrive-oriented measure of resilience can be used to better evaluate what contributes to resilience, which can help prioritize efforts to enhance resilience within and across communities.

Applicability of this work elsewhere: Individual well-being and community resilience are widely regarded as important societal priorities. My goal is to contribute to the extensive efforts to understand and enhance well-being and resilience across diverse contexts and locations.

Learn more: The well-being analysis is available here; the community resilience analysis is available here.

David Trimbach: Understanding people-place relationships is integral to effective marine ecosystem management

Editor’s note: David Trimbach is a postdoctoral research associate in the Human Dimensions Lab and the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Oregon State University. He can be contacted at david.trimbach [at] and on Twitter @davetrimb.

What I am working on: People-place relationships, including people’s sense of place, are tangible and common bonds and sets of ascribed meanings that people – regardless of role, politics, or income – can recognize and understand. Consequently, understanding people-place relationships is integral to effective and more equitable marine ecosystem conservation and management. A geographer by training, I am working on a number of sense-of-place projects in the Puget Sound region of Washington State in the US. One such project demonstrates the importance of Puget Sound residents’ attachments to place and how strong place attachments inform pro-environmental stewardship behaviors among residents. I am also looking at attachments and bonds to the region’s shorelines and iconic Southern Resident killer whale populations.

Potential and observed influence: People-place connections influence people’s attitudes, behaviors, and responses to place changes (such as those associated with environmental degradation, climate change, and landscape modification). By understanding, gauging, centering, and integrating sense of place into conservation or management, we can have a deeper understanding of how or why places matter to people; what people might do or not do to protect or preserve places; and how to create plans, policies, or projects that foster and reflect people’s connections and loyalties to the natural environment and/or specific habitats, landscapes, and geographic features.

Applicability of this work elsewhere: Work focused on people-place relationships and sense of place have wide applicability to other contexts and locations. The idea that peoples’ connections and meanings associated with place matter for conservation and management is not new. Often these connections and meanings are primary motivators for practitioners and planners involved in these fields. What is relatively new is using social science approaches, tools, and frameworks to better understand and include pertinent communities’ connections and meanings to inform conservation and practitioners’ work – whether that is an outreach or education campaign, planning process, or even specific policy. There is even a growing interdisciplinary field know as ‘place-based policy’, which is often anchored or centered around sense of place. Sense of place matters, as it can help practitioners better gauge and navigate the social, cultural, relational, personal, and emotional landscape, which is just as important as the physical or natural landscape for effective conservation and management.

Learn more: Learn more about my research on my website, in this Puget Sound Institute blog, and in a recent publication in Geographical Review.

Felipe Vázquez Palacios: The COVID-19 pandemic has driven elderly fishermen to despair

Editor's note: Felipe Vázquez Palacios is a researcher at the Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores de Antropología Social Unidad Golfo in Mexico. He can be contacted at  fevaz [at]

What I am working on: I am researching how the COVID-19 pandemic is experienced by an elderly fishing population in the Gulf of Mexico, as well as the disadvantages and accumulated problems in the health, economics, and social dynamics of this group. The pandemic has had negative effects on the health and lifestyle of this population, as well as on their productive activities, which were already characterized by precariousness, deterioration, contamination, overexploitation of resources, institutional indifference, vulnerability, and insecurity. The closure of the productive and tourist sectors, lack of employment and money, and oversaturation of fishing activity, along with depreciation of fishing product, are driving these fishermen to despair as well as subjecting them to strenuous hours of work.

Potential and observed influence: Although quarantines have not been enforced, fishermen feel that hygienic restrictions have slowed their work and made it difficult, especially work conducted on land. Because of this, the pandemic is perceived to be harmful, not so much for its danger to health, but because hygienic restrictions keep things closed and prevent commercial activity.

Applicability of this work elsewhere: Ethnographic analysis has made it possible to find three positions on the pandemic:

  • The nostalgic: Fishermen with this position emphasize that nothing will be the same after the pandemic and that the damage is irreversible. This causes them great sadness and dejection. Fishermen with this position pay little attention to hygienic measures and have a tendency to remain immobile because “nothing can be done due to lack of resources.”
  • The conservative: Fishermen with this position feel the alterations in their family dynamics and daily life due to hygienic measures but try to cling to their customs, traditions, spaces, and way of organizing daily life because they are afraid of losing what little they have left. Fishermen with this position feel insecure and helpless because they see their limitations and cannot solve their problems.
  • The resilient: Fishermen with this position follow hygienic measures, examine risk factors to prevent harm, act with initiative, look for alternatives and new learning with a sense of belonging, are attentive to the news, and are interested in the various programs offered to them.

It is important to account for these positions when developing policies to help elderly fishermen.

Learn more: Learn more about my work here.

Carmen Pedroza Gutiérrez: Female work in fisheries is often Ignored, Invisible, Unrecognized (IIU)

Editor’s note: Carmen Pedroza Gutiérrez is a social scientist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). She can be contacted at carmen.pedroza [at]

What I am working on: My primary research interest is the gender division of labor in fish transformation activities and trade – including how this labor might empower women in decision making processes at the local level and, in turn, how income-based empowerment activities might change local gender institutions to be more egalitarian towards women’s participation in the labor market. My primary goal is to account for the real value of women’s contributions to the fishing industry in marine and inland ecosystems. I believe that using a gender perspective in fisheries research is the only way to generate a deeper understanding of the social processes organizing fisheries value chain activities and fully analyze coastal communities’ welfare.

Potential and observed influence: Gendered structures create the environments in which we perform our everyday life activities, and this is true for fisheries economics and management as well. Understanding the factors that generate and influence the gender structures within which all value chain activities are preformed is necessary for accounting for the value of women’s work and achieving more egalitarian working conditions in this economic sector.

Applicability of this work elsewhere: I believe that understanding the factors that influence gender relations and gender structures provide the necessary elements to achieve a more egalitarian society in general and gender equality in the fishing activity in particular. Moreover, understanding who does what and why is the basis to understanding the importance of women’s work in the fishing sector. Giving the corresponding value to female work would help to fight against the Ignored, Invisible, Unrecognized (IIU) situation which characterizes the lives of many women in the fishing sector.

Learn more: Learn more about my work here.

Robert Burns and Ross Andrew: Assessing marine sanctuary visitor use should be customized to local contexts

Editor’s note: Robert Burns is the director of the Division of Forestry and Natural Resources and a professor of Recreation, Parks, and Tourism Resources at West Virginia University. Ross Andrew is a postdoctoral fellow at West Virginia University. They can be contacted at Robert.burns [at] and Ross.andrew [at] respectively.

What we are working on: Visitor use has obvious connections to marine protected area management, as a driver of change in both ecological and economic conditions. National Marine Sanctuaries (NMS) are underwater parks in the US, federally protected for their diverse and exceptional biological and cultural resources. The National Marine Sanctuary Visitor Counting Process (NMS-COUNT) was developed and conceptualized to address the needs of NMS managers for visitor counting and assessment. In open water areas, many NMS sites are accessible through almost infinite locations, so a rigorous set of methods to count those visitors, assess their activities, and evaluate their expenditures related to NMS site visitation is needed.

Potential and observed influence: The NMS-COUNT process considers the local context of NMS sites, and builds off the strength of each site using local expert panels to identify the most feasible visitor monitoring solutions. Following a standardized process across four phases, pilot studies at Gray’s Reef NMS and Florida Keys NMS have produced thousands of visitor observations through wide arrays of sampling techniques. Traditional observation and counting methods are supplemented with specific survey questions and non-traditional techniques for visitor counting (e.g., acoustic signals, social media data, satellite imagery classification, vessel ID tracking data). The methods best suited to a specific NMS site are pulled from the myriad of potential tools, producing a customized counting process that is tailored to the unique attributes of a specific protected area.

Applicability of this work elsewhere: The goal of the NMS-COUNT process is to provide a scalable framework for the entire NMS system within the US. A “one size fits all” approach is not effective for the diversity of NMS settings, but the NMS-COUNT process is a standardized process that can be customized to different contexts. This process has been reviewed by other academic and agency experts within the US and internationally and holds great potential for learning about visitors in marine settings that are challenging to sample.

Learn more: Learn more about the NMS-COUNT process work here.

By Erik Thulin and Rocky Sanchez Tirona, Rare

Editor’s note: Erik Thulin is the behavioral science lead for the Center for Behavior & the Environment at Rare. Rocky Sanchez Tirona is the vice president of Rare Philippines and the Pacific Islands. They can be contacted on LinkedIn here and here respectively and on Twitter @EThulin and @Rare_org respectively.

The environmental field is full of cooperative dilemmas: in other words, what is best for the individual is different than what is best for the group. This creates a clash in priorities and sometimes results in ecosystem collapse. At Rare’s Center for Behavior & the Environment, we believe that these behavioral challenges require behavioral solutions. 

Combining the latest behavioral research from academia with insight from practitioners, we developed the Theory of Cooperative Behavior Adoption (TCBA) to shift communities towards positive cooperative outcomes. It follows a three-step process and tackles some of the common failings of traditional change processes in cooperative dilemma situations:

  1. The TCBA initially works to generate collective demand for a particular behavior, where everyone not only desires the cooperative outcome but realizes that everyone else is after the same thing. Without this deep socially held belief that there is a better outcome achievable, no one will be willing to change their own behavior.
  2. But even with this collective demand, no one wants to start shifting their own behavior if they will be doing so alone. The second phase works to coordinate the shift in behavior so that people see others’ behavior changing at the same time. Then, as the shift happens en masse, no one is unfairly benefitting from others’ changes. Yet even at this stage, individuals can easily revert to the uncooperative behavior.
  3. Phase three works to strengthen the new norm by conducting activities that lead individuals to believe that others in the community would find out and would not accept excuses for violating the norm. 

Marine conservation has many prime examples of cooperative dilemmas. In fisheries management, for instance, reserve areas are often created where no one is allowed to fish. These areas allow fish to repopulate, which in turn can lead to higher catch for all the fishers collectively. This assumes that all the fishers respect the rules and do not fish in the reserve. Each fisher does better as an individual if they fish inside the reserve since this is where the highest concentration of fish is, but this behavior will eventually deplete the resource for the group. All of the fishers are better off when everyone respects the reserve rather than everyone fishing inside it. The TCBA has been applied to marine reserve scenarios in Rare’s Fish Forever program, a community-led solution to revitalize coastal marine habitats. (An example of how Fish Forever has successfully applied behavioral science in the Philippines to restore fisheries for the ecosystems and communities that rely on them is below.)

While these dilemmas take on many names – such as public goods problems, tragedies of the commons, and common pool resource problems – the underlying dynamic is the same. The TCBA can be applied to any issue of cooperative behavior in which: 1) each actor would do better as an individual by performing the uncooperative behavior, regardless of what everyone else does, and 2) as a group, all the actors do better if everyone does the cooperative behavior as compared to everyone doing the uncooperative behavior. From “Leave No Trace in national parks” to slash and burn agriculture and even air pollution from cars, the three phases of this process can help communities tackle their most challenging conservation issues. The TCBA provides an additional and beneficial lens through which practitioners design their sustainability interventions.

Case example: The Theory of Cooperative Behavior Adoption to restore Philippine fisheries

The Philippines is home to some of the world’s most diverse marine ecosystems and to millions of people who rely on them for survival. Rare’s Fish Forever program works with local communities and motivates fishers to protect these invaluable natural resources. As described above, fisheries are a classic cooperative dilemma. Individually, fishers do better by catching as many fish as they can. Collectively, the community suffers as the stocks decline and the long-term viability of the resource disappears. The Theory of Cooperative Behavior Adoption (TCBA) – among other psycho-social models for change – provides key guidelines for how communities can transition their fishery management to a more sustainable and successful activity.

Specifically, we ask that fishers adopt four key behaviors:

  1. Register as a fisher. This enables coordinated management and demonstrates collective demand.
  2. Participate in the management committees. In doing so, fishers can coordinate the shift together.
  3. Respect the reserve areas (i.e., do not fish in the reserves) and comply with other regulations. While these activities allow fish stocks to recover, they also establish the specific set of guidelines everyone will be following – once again coordinating the shift.
  4. Report your catch. Over time, as fishers see the data about how the fishery is doing and the effect of their behavioral shifts, it helps reinforce the new norms in the community.

By pairing these behaviors with local leadership and a unique delivery method, Fish Forever in the Philippines has successfully mobilized communities and demonstrated positive conservation outcomes. At 21 of the first sites where Rare helped local managers run behavior change campaigns, significant improvements in ecological metrics like fish abundance and biomass were seen after 3 to 5 years.

Our community engagement efforts to achieve these goals rely on the latest behavioral insights and social sciences. In one key activity, the Fish Game creates a quick, low-stakes way for fishers to experience the real-world consequences of cooperative dilemmas by experiencing how their catch is influenced not only by their own fishing, but by those around them. They often have two core realizations: (1) everyone should avoid fishing in reserve zones because doing so depletes the fish for everyone, and (2) everyone else in their community now believes the same thing. In another key activity, our Fish Forever programs host public pledge events. Attended by nearly all the fishers in the community, each fisher comes forward and states that from this point forward, they will no longer fish in the reserve area. While each pledge is important for changing that individual fisher’s behavior, what is far more important is the fact that each fisher observed everyone else make the same pledge. This leads each fisher to adopt the belief that everyone is changing together, reassuring them that it makes sense to do the same. Then, we work with management committees to establish community-based patrols and visible reserve buoy markers. This activity strengthens the new norm of not fishing in reserve areas and helps reduce violations by eliminating the excuse that they were not aware of the reserve location. We often plan big community events where fishers decorate their boats. These new designs provide additional visibility and makes the deviant fisher easy to identify. And finally, as the community self-enforces the new norms, fishers quickly feel the social pressure to comply with the new standard. Their peers will know if they do not.

These methods are not just successful in the Philippines. Rare has applied them in other countries, including Indonesia, Brazil, Mozambique, Honduras, and more. They have also been applied to other marine challenges, such as ridge to reef interventions. Critically – and perhaps most obviously – while the TCBA follows similar steps, the specific interventions and activities vary by local conditions, cultures, and circumstances. Practitioners must still use a designer’s eye to see how these can be applied to other conservation issues effectively and intentionally. At Rare, we promote a Behavior-Centered Design (BCD) approach, which blends behavioral science and design thinking, to develop specialized solutions to cooperative dilemmas. Behavioral challenges require behavioral solutions.

Want to learn more? See Erik’s TEDxCambridge Salon talk on Saving Nature with Behavioral Science.

Photo credits:
Photo 1: Philippine fisher painting boat. Photo courtesy of Rocky Sanchez Tirona, Rare.
Photo 2: Philippine fishers playing Fish Game. Photo courtesy of Rocky Sanchez Tirona, Rare.
Photo 3: Rare pledge event in the Philippines. Photo courtesy of Rocky Sanchez Tirona, Rare.

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