Integrating human dimensions into large-scale marine conservation planning

Patrick Christie, Nathan J. Bennett, Noella J. Gray, T. ‘Aulani Wilhelmm, Nai‘a Lewiso, John Parks, Natalie C. Bane, Rebecca L. Gruby, Lindsay Gordon, Jon Day, Sue Taei, Alan M. Friedlander. (2017) Why people matter in ocean governance: Incorporating human dimensions into large-scale marine protected areas. Marine Policy. 84: 273-284.


In our efforts to safeguard vulnerable habitats from the multitude of threats currently facing our planet, oftentimes people get left out of the picture. Large-scale conservation efforts require the support of (especially local) communities to successfully meet their conservation objectives. Therefore, we need to seriously discuss ways to successfully incorporate human dimensions into large-scale conservation planning. In this paper, Christie et al. present some ideas on how we can ensure that large-scale conservation planning is mindful of human populations who might be impacted by new conservation areas.

The evolution of marine conservation planning

Marine protected areas (MPAs) are the long-standing preferred tool for marine conservation planning within the international conservation movement. This is largely because MPAs have been successful in reaching conservation goals, and have also had spillover effects that improve the ecological conditions of neighboring waters. Therefore, the number and extent of MPAs has been steadily rising around the globe. But large-scale marine protected areas (LSMPAs) are a much newer concept. LSMPAs are commonly defined as areas larger than 30,000 to 100,000 km2 (Figure 1). The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is probably the most easily recognized LSMPA. Based on the successes of MPAs, these larger LSMPAs are expected to successfully protect entire ecosystems, especially highly mobile species such as tunas and sharks.

Figure 1. Large-scale marine protected areas around the globe (source: Big Ocean)

Where do humans fit in?

Despite the numerous ecological benefits associated with LSMPAs, they can face some unique social, political, cultural, and economic challenges. Designation of LSMPAs can have significant impacts on local communities that may be overlooked during planning and implementation if human dimensions aren’t explicitly considered.  For example, LSMPAs may result in uneven economic benefits and losses. Therefore, careful consideration of local geopolitical intricacies is required to identify potential displacements of livelihoods (e.g., loss of income if traditional fishing practices are restricted or prohibited) and how this may impact local communities support of the LSMPA.

Recommendations for incorporating human dimensions

Through consultations with practitioners, scientists, and academics, the authors of this paper developed the following eight themes of best management practices for incorporating human dimensions, and addressing some challenges faced by LSMPAs. They recommend treating them as a ‘living document’ that can be modified for context-specific situations rather than a set of rigid rules.

  • Integration of culture and traditions: integrating and supporting local and indigenous cultures in a respectful manner. Incorporating their norms, values, knowledge and traditions into the planning and execution of LSMPAs.
  • Effective public and stakeholder engagement: this would ideally include reoccurring opportunities for members of the public and key stakeholders to participate in the planning and execution of LSMPAs in a meaningful way.
  • Maintenance of livelihoods and well being: LSMPA planning should consider its impacts on local livelihood and strive to (at a minimum) maintain livelihoods.
  • Promotion of economic sustainability: if negative economic consequences are expected to arise because of the LSMPA, those affected should be compensated accordingly.
  • Conflict management and resolution: given the multifaceted nature of LSMPAs, conflicts may arise naturally. Developing context-specific, proactive strategies for resolving conflicts will help LSMPA planning and execution stay on track.
  • Institutional transparency and (mis)matching ideas and institutions: one way of ensuring all parties, stakeholders and institutions are on the same page is to have a transparent decision-making process. Another is to regularly share developments and create opportunities to provide feedback in a timely manner.
  • Legitimate and appropriate governance: LSMPAs should be undertaken with local laws, traditions and norms in mind.
  • Social justice and empowerment: respect traditional rights to waters under LSMPAs and avoid ‘ocean grabbing’ tactics that will disenfranchise key stakeholders such as indigenous groups and result in increased social injustices.

Ultimately, the best management practices recommended in this paper are guidelines that can serve as a starting point for incorporating human dimensions in many other conservation planning settings (e.g, forestry).

Share this:
Lushani Nanayakkara

Lushani Nanayakkara

I completed my PhD at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada. I study both the human dimensions (via stakeholder surveys) and ecological dynamics (via ecosystem surveys and stable isotopes) of aquatic ecosystems. Prior to this I completed my MSc in Environmental Sciences and Policy at Johns Hopkins University. I currently live in Ottawa, and in my spare time I love hanging out with my dog Piper, travelling, cooking and listening to podcasts. Find me on Twitter @SciPoliBoundary

Leave a Reply