This section, which highlights work carried out by the UK Marine Science Coordination Committee (MSCC) Social Science Task Group, presents evidence on the social value of the marine environment and public perceptions which can enhance UK decision-making to protect and manage the marine environment.


Social value and benefits of the marine environment

In addition to providing economic value, the marine environment supports and provides considerable social and cultural value including recreation, heritage and identity, beauty and inspiration, sense of place, health and wellbeing (for a detailed categorisation of marine cultural ecosystem services see Garcia Rodrigues and others, 2017). Evidence on the size, characterisation, distribution and relative importance of these services is limited, but there is growing interest and research in this area across a number of social science disciplines.

In 2017, a Kantar TNS (2018) survey found that 222 million leisure trips (3+ hours) were made to the seaside/coast in Great Britain (170 million in England, 18 million in Scotland and 21 million in Wales). Expenditure on these trips totalled £6,084 million and activities included: visiting a beach (46 million trips), walking (54 million trips), sunbathing (9 million trips), swimming (6 million trips), fishing (4 million trips) and boating/sailing/water sports on or by the sea (3 million trips). Whilst there is no direct comparison in Northern Ireland, a NISRA (2018) study found that 26% of the 2.2 million overnight trips taken by Northern Ireland residents were to beaches or the coast. There is some evidence that coastal activities are undertaken by a wide range of individuals and that, compared to green spaces, they are likely to be visited by both high and low socio-economic groups (Elliott and others, 2018).

Evidence suggests that living closer to the coast is associated with good physical and mental health and that this effect may be greater amongst socio-economically deprived communities (White and others, 2013a; Wheeler and others, 2012). One study estimated that physical activity undertaken in the marine environment provided a total gain of 24,853 quality adjusted life years which translated to a conservative estimate of £176m in annual health care savings in England (Papathanasopoulou and others, 2016). The recent Government Office Science report on Health and Wellbeing of Coastal Communities (Depledge and others, 2017) highlights that many coastal communities are on the frontline of coastal change and are facing both environmental and socio-demographic upheavals that influence their health and wellbeing.

In one study, the weather, climate, and scenery were found by UK individuals to be the most important services derived from the ocean – though there is a broad diversity of perceptions about the sea that exist within the UK population (Potts and others, 2016). The marine environment has also been found to be associated with multiple cultural wellbeing benefits with beaches considered an important tradition (Tunstall and Penning-Rowsell, 1998). A study of recreational divers and anglers in the UK saw benefits through engagement and interaction with nature, place identity, therapeutic value, social bonding, spiritual value and memory/transformative value (Bryce and others, 2016). 

Public perceptions towards the UK marine environment

As well as understanding and recognising the value the marine environment brings to individuals and society, we also need to understand individual/societal perceptions towards the marine environment, particularly around specific marine policy issues such as marine spatial planning (McKinley and others, 2019). The social sciences are at the forefront of building this understanding and a growing body of research is driving innovative approaches. Public perceptions research contributes to marine management by recognising the heterogeneity of society and by supporting better engagement of public audiences at the right time and in the right way and to adapt policy development to specific issues, contexts and stakeholders. The research facilitates better understanding of the social context and how policy interventions can be successful in coastal communities. It also works to bridge the gaps between the natural sciences, policy, decision makers and the public, particularly at a time when cross disciplinary science is at the forefront of research and decision making.

Approximately 30 studies of UK marine public perceptions were published between 1994 and 2016.  Many studies illustrate the diversity of perceptions which exist within the UK population, recognising that the public is not one homogenous group but varies by many factors, including age (Potts and others, 2016), location (de Groot and Bailey, 2016) and gender (Jefferson and others, 2014).

In recent years we have seen a significant increase in the media and public engagement with marine issues. In terms of UK public attitudes, studies have shown considerable levels of public pessimism about the biodiversity and health of UK seas (Jefferson and others, 2014; Hawkins and others, 2016) with pollution being the greatest perceived marine threat (Fletcher and others, 2009; Potts and others, 2016). In particular, there are high levels of public concern over marine plastics with around 70% rating plastic pollution of beaches and the marine environment as an important issue to them in a recent UK survey (ICARO, 2017). Furthermore, in recent years we have continued to see a significant increase in media and public engagement in marine issues with programmes such as the BBC’s Blue Planet linked to greater public awareness and calls for action.

There is strong support for UK marine conservation (Hawkins and others, 2016) including deep sea (Jobstvogt and others, 2014) and offshore sites (Börger and others, 2014). However, personal experience of marine environments has been found to be important for developing interest and supporting conservation (Jefferson and others, 2014; Friedrich and others, 2014). Whilst marine protected areas have multiple values (Chae and others, 2012), local acceptance can vary (Pieraccinni and Cardwell, 2016). The involvement of local communities in marine conservation and planning, and the identification of local benefits is currently being investigated through the Marine Management Organisation-led Marine Pioneer demonstration projects and others (Burdon and others, submitted).

Public perceptions of the impacts of climate change show low awareness of ocean acidification (Capstick and others, 2016), a public disconnect with sea level change (Thomas and others, 2015) and the view that mitigation should be prioritised over adaptation (Chilvers and others, 2014). Research into the marine renewable sector has found that attitudes are influenced by local variables and the type of technology installed (de Groot and Bailey, 2016; Voke and others, 2013) with particular concerns around wildlife impacts and public engagement (Devine-Wright, 2013).

Marine social science case studies

Six selected case studies are summarised here to explore social value and public perceptions regarding our seas and oceans.

Case study 1: National public perceptions of ocean use

Potts and others (2016) sampled public perceptions on the oceans across seven European countries including the uses of ocean systems. UK respondents considered weather and climate and scenery as the most important benefits derived from the ocean, although UK values were comparatively lower than other European countries. Public concern over threats to the marine environment were centred around the visible issues of pollution and litter and less so the more intangible impacts of eutrophication, invasive species and to certain extent climate change, suggesting there may be a schism between scientific and public perspectives on the pressures that affect marine systems. The role of science communication and public engagement is critical in closing this gap and understanding the integrated drivers on ocean systems. The findings also highlight the heterogeneous nature of public perceptions toward marine environments, both spatially and across demographic categories. In some cases, factors such as age or generation are more influential than the proximity of a community to the coastal environment. This has important implications for policy delivery in terms of responding to marine challenges at the right scale and exploring decentralised approaches to marine governance (such as the Marine Pioneer Projects). Articulating values for cultural services is a research and policy challenge that is important for understanding the multiple benefits derived from healthy oceans. While traditional benefits such as seafood are clearly recognised, cultural services are less understood, despite their prominence and awareness within the general public.

Case study 2: Offshore wind farms and public opinion

UK social science can often orientate around single issues such as the impacts of climate change or debates around energy. Given that there are more than 1,569 turbines in 30 offshore wind farms in UK waters there is a need to explore public opinion to inform the debate over the viability of offshore wind farm development. A study by Hattam and others (2015a) aimed to explore perceptions of offshore wind farms in UK waters, to examine the role for offshore wind farms in the UK’s energy mix and to identify the barriers to development. Data were collected across the UK and the East Coast of England. While East Coast respondents had greater exposure to the offshore wind industry, there were few statistically significant differences in responses between local and national perspectives. Perceptions of offshore wind farms and their impacts were generally favourable. Respondents felt that offshore wind farms do not harm human health, are an efficient way to generate electricity, contribute significantly to the UK economy, create local jobs, and do not affect fishermen’s incomes. Opinion was more evenly divided as to whether offshore wind farms have a positive effect on coastal tourism, benefit local communities, harm wildlife or spoil the view. Those from the East Coast of England held more favourable opinions about the impact on the view. Public perception was considered the greatest barrier to further development of the offshore wind industry, but responses indicated that offshore wind is viewed less favourably than solar, gas and nuclear in terms of reliability and cost.

Case study 3: Public views and marine climate change

Chilvers (2014) presents a UK mixed-methods study to understand how the public views and responds to marine climate change related issues. A UK survey (N=1,001) in 2011 was combined with a citizens’ panel with participants from the East Anglia region in the UK. The study demonstrates the value of relating a wider national survey with qualitative insights of why people perceive and understand issues in specific ways. The research shows that the most immediate and significant issues for the public do not always match with those identified by experts. People think about climate change and the marine environment in relation to their own contexts and daily lives. Thus, their understanding, whilst informed by scientific knowledge, is shaped by personal experience, the proximity of perceived impacts, and their personal sense of risk and morality. Study participants indicated more activity on climate mitigation than adaptation, although it emerged from the discussions that individuals are indeed adapting and portray their actions in ways that differ from formal framings of adaptation. Key implications are communication and engagement on marine climate change issues should be sensitive to local circumstances and perceptions, creating spaces where stakeholders can come together on a more equal footing to reflect on climate change issues, and acknowledging and learning from diverse public engagements to mobilise change for addressing challenging environmental issues.

Case study 4: The value of Dogger Bank

A recent study by Hattam and others (2015b) applied a mixed methods approach within the context of the sustainable management of the transnational Dogger Bank. Three parallel studies were undertaken to investigate the ecological value of the Dogger Bank using a quantitative assessment of ecosystem service indicators (Hattam and others, 2015c), an economic valuation of different management scenarios for fisheries, offshore wind farm development and nature conservation designation on the Dogger Bank using an online discrete choice method of a representative sample of the UK public (Börger and others, 2014), and a socio-cultural valuation established using a deliberative valuation workshop employing a citizen’s jury approach with 20 members of the UK general public (Hattam and others, 2014). These three studies all addressed different research questions, thus providing different insights into the value of ecosystem services provided by the Dogger Bank. Given the myriad issues needing to be addressed to ensure sustainable management of the Dogger Bank, such a mixed methods approach has the potential to highlight areas of contention, for example in relation to fisheries and fisheries management, which would not be apparent from the three studies in isolation. Integrating the findings from different valuation approaches is advantageous to environmental managers as it provides a greater insight into the complexity of the issues.

In negotiations about marine management plans, valuations can inform negotiations by providing the wider societal perspective and help establish priorities among conflicting management goals.

Case study 5: Wellbeing and litter

Focusing on individual wellbeing from the marine environment is an increasing area of interest in the social sciences. Numerous studies exist that demonstrate that visiting the coast or simply viewing a picture of the marine environment can have restorative effects on an individual, from improving their mood, attention, and overall health (Laumann and others, 2001; Wheeler and others, 2012; White and others, 2013b). Using an experimental approach, Wyles and others (2016), examined the detrimental effects marine litter (manufactured solid waste) can have on these benefits. A series of three studies examining a total of 138 individuals found that the presence of litter significantly sacrificed these benefits. By responding to a range of standardised images, participants responded negatively towards those with litter present (especially public-related litter). Consequently, by expanding the evidence base regarding the range of impacts marine litter has on the environment and on society, social sciences can work with the natural sciences to furthering our understanding of this environmental issue, and thus emphasise the importance of addressing it.

Case study 6: Participatory mapping and deliberation

Despite an increase in international effort to better understand the diversity and quality of marine ecosystem services and their benefits, there is an evidence gap of how these are identified at the local scale, where benefits are provided and to whom, trade-offs in development decisions and understanding how benefits support wellbeing. Often the benefits of conservation are poorly understood at the local scale, are not effectively integrated into policy and are rarely included meaningfully in public discourse. A recent study by Burdon and others (submitted) addresses this disjuncture and responds to the demand for improving dialogue with local communities and stakeholders, understanding access to ecosystem services, and their link to wellbeing. This study includes the results from four demonstration sites along the UK North Sea coast (East Caithness, Aberdeen Bay, Humber Estuary, The Wash), and examines a process of knowledge exchange with local coastal partnerships, community interests, local industries and policy-makers through a participatory mapping programme of workshops. An innovative and robust stakeholder-driven approach is showcased that can be used to inform marine planning, conservation management and coastal development.

Future of marine social science: evidence gaps and priorities

The field of marine social science is diverse and continues to draw on innovations and techniques from the broader field of social science. As marine social science continues to grow in capacity, and to garner an increasing recognition of the role it can play in delivering sustainable management and decision making for our seas, it is important to look to the future, and to consider existing evidence gaps to help to identify where our priorities for the short, medium and long term should lie. A recent Defra commissioned study, engaging over 160 researchers and practitioners working in marine social science across the UK, has identified and examined a selection of current evidence gaps, working with stakeholders to develop an ongoing direction for marine social sciences and its effective use within UK and Devolved Administration marine management.

Marine social sciences can provide us with rich and valuable insights into the complexities and diversities of societal relationships with the sea. Working with key research institutions, we need to develop a UK-wide, longitudinal research programme to develop this evidence base, which can then be used as a baseline for the on-going monitoring of social, cultural and economic impacts of marine management. While there has been some work on economic values of marine ecosystem services and benefits, there is limited social and cultural evidence for public values, attitudes, perceptions, concerns, levels of ocean literacy, and indeed, barriers and motivations to behaviour change relating to our seas. We need to develop a meaningful set of indicators for social and cultural values that can be effectively applied within policy and decision-making processes and can be used by the academic and wider research community to support the collection of useful data that contributes to our wider understanding of these issues. Importantly, research needs to take account of the diversity of communities across the UK and the DAs, recognising that the values and perceptions will differ spatially as well as temporally, further emphasising the need for long-term evidence collection. Additionally, there is a need for the designation of protected areas and spatial management to take account of social, cultural and economic issues, complementing the current focus on natural and physical science-based evidence. In terms of maritime industries, there is a need to better understand the total value of the fisheries sector (including the social and cultural values relating the sector), encompassing commercial and recreational fishing, as well as harvesting and foraging activities. We need to further develop our understanding of the role of women and migrant workers within our maritime industries (for example, women’s role in fishing communities which is often undervalued and goes unseen), and to better understand the health and wellbeing implications associated with fishing, as well as working at sea more broadly. Furthermore, there is an overarching lack of evidence pertaining to social equity and justice issues relating to rights and access to marine resources, transparency of and engagement in marine governance procedures.

Finally, as marine social science continues to emerge as an integral contributor to contemporary marine governance in the UK, the Devolved Administrations and the UK Overseas Territories, there is a need for improved consideration of alternative data collection methods and approaches, including the use of qualitative data as evidence. As stated above, a crucial forward step in this must be the development of appropriate indicators that can be used to encapsulate the richness and diversity of social and cultural evidence, supported by a clear pathway for the inclusion of this evidence within marine management and decision making.


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