Socioeconomic Monitoring for Mission: Iconic Reefs

By: Mary Allen, NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program, Danielle Schwarzmann, NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and Robert Burns, Ross Andrew, and Chris Schwinghammer, West Virginia University

Takeaway: A new socioeconomic monitoring program will assess the effects of coral restoration on reef users, human communities, and ecosystem services.

In the Florida Keys, the reef forms the foundation of the region's identity, providing habitat for ecologically and economically important species and drawing visitors seeking to dive, snorkel, and fish. All of these benefits rely on healthy coral reef ecosystems, but this reef, along with many of our reefs, is threatened by pollution, climate change, coral disease, and more. In response, Mission: Iconic Reefs is underway to change the trajectory of the health of seven iconic coral reefs in Florida.

A mix of yellow and brown corals in different shapes and sizes.
Florida's coral reef is an important part of Florida's environment, economy, and culture. Credit: Derek Manzello.

Mission: Iconic Reefs (M:IR) is a multi-decade initiative to restore seven iconic reefs in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS). In addition to M:IR Field Team monitoring that tracks restoration progress & effectiveness, monitoring that assesses the human dimension is also crucial to demonstrate how restoration can support ecosystem services and diverse human communities.

The main goals for socioeconomic monitoring are to understand:

  • the status and trends of human use and access to restored and unrestored coral reef sites,
  • perceptions of visitors to the sites and the restoration efforts,
  • stewardship behaviors, and,
  • the economic benefits of restoration.

Socioeconomic monitoring complements M:IR biophysical monitoring for a holistic understanding of restoration and its impacts to society. Robust socioeconomic analyses contribute to a variety of societal goals and values, such as a healthy economy and sustainable and equitable communities.

Several people sit on a boat holding orange and brown fish in their hands and smile at the camera.
Recreation in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary includes fishing, boating, scuba diving, and more.
Developing a M:IR Socioeconomic Monitoring Program

NOAA's Coral Reef Conservation Program and Office of National Marine Sanctuaries are working with M:IR partners to develop a socioeconomic monitoring program. West Virginia University, with support provided by NOAA's Office of Habitat Conservation through the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, is assisting in the development of the program over the next three years. This program includes collection of human use and perception data using multiple methods to quantify resource use throughout Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Collected data will address perceptions, knowledge, stewardship sentiments, and educational factors related to coral reef resources and restoration. Traditional on-the-ground surveying of recreators in the Sanctuary will be coupled with innovative methods using remotely-sensed data to create a comprehensive picture of human-use patterns. By using these techniques, a representative sample of coral reef users will be obtained to evaluate the socioeconomic dynamics of the coral reef restoration being performed by M:IR.

Ultimately, the goal of this sampling framework is to set up a monitoring protocol that is sustainable in the long-term for collecting recreation data in the FKNMS.

Stakeholder engagement and workshops

Between February and April 2023, four stakeholder workshops were conducted by M:IR socioeconomic monitoring team members. The goals of the workshops were to inform sampling plan development and potential survey questions from local recreation experts. Stakeholders such as charter operators, marina owners, outdoor camp directors, local citizens, and others with knowledge of marine recreation resources were invited to participate and provide insight into coral reef use and restoration. Workshops included a guided survey and discussion. Over 20 stakeholders attended and shared their perspectives on use patterns (where and when people recreate), iconic reef knowledge and support, substitution behavior (alternative sites they visit or activities they do), and benefits and burdens of coral reef conservation.

On the left, a group of people sit around a table, all facing one person who is standing in front of a project. On the right, a map of the Florida Keys with round colored spots at a variety of locations.
A stakeholder workshop in Marathon, FL with local experts on recreational activities (left). Heatmap of workshop attendees responses to the question “Are there specific areas where visitation/use is concentrated?” Responses displayed are from workshops in the upper Keys (Key Largo and Islamorada; right).

Key takeaways from the workshops included that a majority (95%) of respondents support coral reef restoration while only a little over half (57%) believe that it will be successful in the long-term (10+ years). Over half (57%) had stopped visiting a reef site because its quality had degraded. Communication efforts of Mission: Iconic Reefs appear successful, with 76% of respondents having heard of M:IR prior to attending the workshop. Additional input in workshops provided qualitative data with important themes surrounding sustainability, regulation, management, benefit trade-offs, healthy ecosystem definitions, and livelihood dependency related to coral reef ecosystems.

An infographic displaying icons of a thumbs up, map location, branching coral, and ear next to statistics on coral reef restoration.
A summary of results from the initial stakeholder workshops. 95% (20 of 21) of participants at the initial stakeholder workshops support coral restoration. Only 57% (12 of 21) think coral restoration will be successful long-term. 57% (12 of 21) had stopped visiting a site because quality had declined. And, 76% (16 of 21) had heard of Mission:Iconic Reefs.

Next Steps

The monitoring program is taking a phased approach with long-term investments in mind. The stakeholder workshops were part of Phase 1. Phases 2-4 will involve the development of the sampling methodology, including on-the-ground surveys and data analyses, and communication and outreach about the results.

This program represents a strong investment into the socioeconomic science that is so critical in defining human connections and long-term sustainability of protected area resources management. The Mission: Iconic Reef team is robust and is forging an interdisciplinary monitoring and management future for the Florida Keys and many other marine protected areas.

Related Stories and Products