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Dealing with the double-edged sword of tourism to maintain coral reefs

Coral reefs are beautiful nurseries of marine biodiversity and attract an increasing number of tourists. But, along with climate change, increasing tourism is putting pressure on the coral reefs. Together with residents, resorts and local universities, scientists from Wageningen University are studying how to balance tourism with nature conservation.

Back in January 2020, a diverse mix of people embarked on a ten-day boat trip along the beautiful coast of Raja Ampat, Indonesia, and visited the coral reefs there. It was an explorative consortium-building expedition that involved marine biologists, sociologists, hydrologists and economists from Wageningen University, together with 90 | Wageningen University & Research scientists from universities in Indonesia. On board were also local stakeholders, including owners of tourist resorts and residents of the area.

A floating interdisciplinary workshop, it was a creative way to get acquainted with each other’s disciplines while investigating the study site,’ says Lisa Becking, Associate Professor of Marine Biodiversity at the Aquaculture and Fisheries Group of Wageningen University. Becking is programme leader of INREEF: Building the Resilience of Marine Protected Areas in Tourism Destinations, which is based on the consortium that was built during this expedition.

Coral reefs are very important for maintaining marine biodiversity, for coastal protection, for food, and form the basis for many economic activities such as tourism and fisheries. They are endangered worldwide, primarily due to the effects of climate change, but also due to local stressors, such as dynamite fishing or resorts discharging untreated toilet waste into the water. ‘Tourism is a double- edged sword,’ says Machiel Lamers, Associate Professor at the Environmental Policy Group of Wageningen University, who co-leads the INREEF programme. ‘Tourism provides income for marine protected areas through entrance fees, but too much tourism can endanger the reef and erode social cohesion.’

Above and below the surface

The INREEF programme involves 13 PhDs and only started in 2021. Its aim is to help strike a balance and see how tourism can be combined with maintaining the reef. Social and economic factors above water determine the condition of the reef as much as biological and hydrodynamic factors below the sea surface, Becking says. ‘That’s why we study marine protected areas as social-ecological systems.’

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The research will contribute to a resilient reef in several ways, Becking explains. The programme will deliver interdisciplinary online education programmes on marine protected areas, create a governance toolbox to evaluate the ecological and socio-economic impact of management strategies, and devise policy interventions. The programme will also work on technological interventions for wastewater pollution caused by tourism activities and raise public awareness through a citizen science app for tourists and local communities.

Safe operating space

Another result will be a dashboard that will monitor the status and resilience of marine protected areas. The dashboard can be used by policymakers, conservation NGOs or resort owners to determine the boundaries within which activities in or around the reef are sustainable, or what measures are needed to protect the reef. ‘The dashboard will help to determine what the safe operating space is for marine protected areas,’ Lamers says. The dashboard is based on monitoring different indicators to assess the state and resilience of the marine protected areas, Becking says. ‘Simply counting the number of tourists might not say so much, because some areas can handle more tourists than others, depending on the biological baseline and the other pressures on the social- ecological system. The PhD students will carry out fundamental research, which will help us to understand how different stressors are connected and how they influence each other.’

Goals set with stakeholders

The goals of the research programme were set together with the partners and the stakeholders in the programme, Becking says. ‘It is their reef. We’re working together on solutions that are needed and fit their situation.’ The problems that stakeholders face require an integrated and interdisciplinary approach, according to Becking. ‘The resilience of marine ecosystems is inextricably linked with all societal and economic activity above the water.’

The expedition by boat was a good pressure cooker for real interdisciplinary work, Lamers tells. ‘We spent ten days together, literally in the same boat.’ The sociologist joined the dive underwater to count fish and coral species, the marine biologist went along to conduct interviews with the village chiefs. That way you learn to see through each other’s eyes and learn about each other’s methods. This is necessary, Becking says, because you learn to understand how the different types of data can be integrated later on.

Great fun

Interdisciplinary research is great fun, comments Becking, who frequently exchanges her diving suit for conversations on land with residents and fellow researchers to find out more the connections between what happens above and under water. Lamers also likes to work with natural scientists, because they provide hard figures that the social scientist often does not have. ‘That makes for a different dialogue with policymakers.’ But it is also important to be realistic, says Becking. ‘Supervising an interdisciplinary PhD student requires dedication and good communication between the members of the supervisory team.’

Both are enthusiastic about the sandwich construction, in which the PhD’s host institute covers half of the costs. ‘That’s a real investment, which means they are also highly motivated and will make sure that the research is relevant to them,’ says Becking. And that in turn forces the Wageningen researchers to really think along with the partners about what they want from the research and how it links to the field. ‘That is very positive, because that is how the programme can make an impact.’

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Title: INREEF: Building the Resilience of Marine Protected Areas in Tourism Destinations

Duration: 2021-2027

Number of PhDs: 13

Wageningen University chair groups involved: Agrotechnology and Food Sciences: Environmental Technology (ETE), Animal Sciences: Aquaculture & Fisheries (AFI), Ecology and Water Quality Management (AEW), Environmental Sciences: Hydrology and Quantitative Water Management (HWM), Aquatic Social Sciences: Environmental Policy (ENP), Environmental Economics and Natural Resource (ENR)

Wageningen Research: Wageningen Marine Research (WMR)

Partners: Institut Pertanian Bogor (IPB), Institut Teknologi Bandung (ITB), UNIPA Universitas Papua (UNIPA), University of Aruba, University of Curacao, The Indonesian National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN), Baseftin, Raja Ampat Research and Conservation Center, The Nature Conservancy (TNC), Coral Triangle Center (CTC), Conservation International (CI), World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance (DCNA), STINAPA (Bonaire), STENAPA (St Eustatius). Government parties and parties from the tourism sector