INREEF: Interdisciplinary program to build the resilience of marine protected areas in tourism destinations

Fifty percent of the world’s reefs have disappeared due to global climate change and local stressors from fishing and pollution. Yet there still is hope: increasing evidence shows that the resilience of the remaining reefs can be strengthened by adaptive management strategies that reduce local stressors.

In marine protected areas (MPAs), tourism is recognized as a two-edged sword that contributes to both stressors as well as to stress-reducing strategies. Here we comprehensively address the role of tourism in coral reef conservation: whilst tourism numbers have been increasing continuously for decades, especially in remote areas, the tourism suddenly came to a complete standstill during the COVID-19 pandemic, providing valuable insights regarding the resilience and economic importance of coral reefs. The INREEF program tackles the question how such fluctuations in tourism, in concert with climate change, fishing and pollution, will affect the ecological integrity, local livelihoods and cohesion, and the governance capacities of MPAs.

In a collaborative effort, we set out to identify and develop the tools for analyzing how the resilience of MPAs can be (i) measured, (ii) monitored, and (iii) governed to safeguard the coral reefs in a future of fluctuating tourism and climate change. MPAs consist of interlinked ecosystems, socioeconomic systems, and governance arrangements. MPAs are thus social-ecological systems (SESs) that require an interdisciplinary approach to fully grasp the complex feedbacks and governance structures linking the socioeconomic and ecological subsystems. This program considers MPAs in Indonesia and the Dutch Caribbean, showing a distinct gradient in tourism development and reef health. By observing spatial and temporal variations within each MPA, as well as between MPAs, we will disentangle important causal mechanisms that explain resilience dynamics and will evaluate potential policy interventions.

Our team will map key causal mechanisms and investigate feedbacks to understand how those are linked to resilience against local and regional stressors and disturbances. Through our inclusive bottom-up approach, local stakeholders will be involved to co-develop governance tools and technological interventions enhancing MPA resilience. We will identify generic indicators, including thresholds, quantifying the health and resilience of coral reefs. With this knowledge base, we will co-develop adaptive management plans that reflect local contexts and stakeholders. Our program will develop:

  • institutional capacity at universities, institutes and NGOs in Indonesia and the Dutch Caribbean through joint sandwich PhDs, technical workshops, education, and scholarships.
  • interdisciplinary online education programs on MPAs and SESs within WUR, and among Indonesian and Dutch Caribbean institutions.
  • indicators and monitoring methods to track coral reef health and quantify tourism impacts, including novel big data sources and remote sensing methods.
  • MPA resilience dashboard to provide 1. a comprehensive overview of the MPA status (indicators vs. signal values), 2. a decision support tool for adaptive management, 3. a publicly accessible tool for awareness building and education.
  • governance toolbox evaluating ecological and socio-economic impacts of management strategies and informing about effectiveness and efficiency of policy interventions.
  • technological interventions for wastewater pollution by tourism activities in MPAs
  • public awareness through a citizen science app for tourists and local communities, informative website with knowledge clips, active involvement of public stakeholders.

Our ambitious program builds on a strong network and strategic international and transdisciplinary partnership of 9 knowledge institutions, 8 NGOs involved in MPA management, 6 governmental institutions and 7 parties from the private sector in the Dutch Caribbean and Indonesia. The program will run from 2021-2027 and will comprise 13 PhD projects and one postdoctoral project.