By Miranda Bernard
I study the role of community engagement in marine protected areas, also known as MPAs. MPAs are patches of seascape that are formally set aside in order to help conserve marine resources. By set aside, I mean that there are rules on the types of activities that can occur in these areas or when they can occur or by whom. In my research I focus specifically on Caribbean islands.
From the literature I was reading I felt that a lot of fundamental research had been conducted across the Caribbean but the shift in research interests to more social-ecological studies has taken place primarily in the Coral Triangle (the highly diverse waters surrounded by Indonesia, the Philippines, and southwestern Pacific islands). My dad is Trinidadian and, growing up, I spent time in the Caribbean with family and soaking up the natural beauty.
Thinking about the history and future of this region, I had found myself wondering what the future of the cultures and economies would look like in the face of marine environmental change. MPAs are prominent in the Caribbean as they are around the world as a major tool to alleviate impacts from marine ecosystem threats (such as overfishing, recreational diving, etc.). Like many conservation initiatives, there is often an imbalance in power. Community engagement, the focus of my research surrounding Caribbean MPAs, has the potential to dissolve power. However, there is little information out there on how to best conduct community engagement in MPAs. Studying marine social sciences adds clarity to the complex dynamics between and within marine ecosystems and human communities.
Thinking about all the global stressors, my goal is to help sustain these environments in a way that is beneficial to the people who live there. In the future, marine ecosystems will not look and function as they do today. This means that naturally our (human) relationships will also change. When there are strong power imbalances in a community some people will “win” and others will “lose”. So, how can we make it such that those with the least power do not “lose”? How can we facilitate a situation with the least amount of “loss”? How can we engage people who live in places where the legacies of colonization run rampant? How do we ensure equity in the access and distribution of resources?
These are some of the questions that are increasingly important in marine conservation, and conservation more generally. The environment around us is changing, so we must rethink our relationships with our surroundings.
Written by Miranda Bernard
Miranda Bernard is a Ph.D. Candidate at Arizona State University in the Environmental Life Sciences department. Her dissertation research is focused on the roles of community engagement in the management of marine protected areas. She has conducted research on other pressing marine conservation topics such as plastic pollution and sustainable fisheries. Additionally, she is the co-president of ASU's Black Graduate Student Association. Miranda can be found on her website, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.