Monitoring the socio-economic impacts of Marine Protected Areas: report

This report, on the socio-economic impacts of MPAs, found that there had been localised positive and negative impacts on coastal communities and industries, linked to MPA management measures.

Section 5. Wider Social Impacts on Local Areas

This section sets out the wider social, economic and environmental impacts of MPAs. As well as impacts felt by industries operating in the marine environment, stakeholders in coastal areas can also experience impacts as communities become more or less prosperous due to the changes in the industries that support them. As well as these wider economic impacts, the activities surrounding the MPAs and the environmental changes they produce can affect how people engage with each other and their environment. Some of these changes are a consequence of the more direct impacts on marine industries (e.g. sea-fisheries, processing, aquaculture and tourism) that were discussed in the previous section, while others stem from the groups and activities that have sprung up in response to the MPA designations.

This section presents an overview of the analysis of qualitative perspectives from local businesses and communities on the positive and negative impacts of MPAs, considering economic, social and environmental consequences. In addition to understanding local stakeholders' perspectives, it is important to gauge the level of public understanding and support for MPAs, as they were created in the public interest. This section therefore also presents data from the Social Attitudes Survey regarding attitudes towards, and awareness of, MPAs.

Summary of findings

A fairly large number of respondents described how community groups associated with MPAs had organised events and activities in order to raise awareness and educate both locals and visitors about the marine environment. Respondents from eNGOs and community groups mentioned research projects, data collection campaigns and collaborations with research institutions, all aimed at improving the evidence base for MPAs. They highlighted that these events and activities provided opportunities for people to gain skills and experiences that might normally be too expensive or hard to reach. In some cases, MPAs are located near urban centres, and give people access to marine wildlife that they may not have had previously.

Many respondents described environmental improvements that they had seen since the implementation of the MPA management measures, and feelings of hope and inspiration at the thought of the future conservation benefits of MPAs.

There is evidence that community groups and organisations had developed or galvanised around the MPAs. These were said to bring like-minded people together, while a number of respondents described how local communities had taken a keen interest in the MPAs, their management and the activities associated with them. On the other hand, it was also very common for respondents to describe divisions between those who supported or opposed the MPAs.

Many respondents, from a range of groups, commented on the relationship between marine stakeholders and Marine Scotland. Respondents felt that there was a lack of a clear strategy for the marine environment, as well as the industries that depend on it, and that decisions appeared to be based on political need rather than evidence. It was acknowledged that relations had improved in recent years, however.

Respondents from the fishing industry often said that they were in favour of conservation and regulation, so long as it was fair, effective and enforced. Many were aware that the marine environment and fish stocks were in decline and felt that intervention was needed. They said that they would not mind losing access to grounds or stocks, if everyone was losing out in the same way, and they could be sure of the environmental benefits. Some felt that there was a need for more local management and more monitoring.

In terms of individual perceptions of MPAs, most respondents understood MPAs to be concerned with protected features or marine conservation. Others understood their aim to be fisheries management, stock improvement, or a complete ban on commercial activity. Analysis of the social attitude survey, and short structured interviews showed that many respondents were not sure what MPAs were, but the majority of respondents were in support of them, nonetheless.

5.1 Engagement with the marine environment

Many of the reported benefits of MPAs were linked to encouraging or facilitating engagement with the marine environment. It was felt that MPAs could draw people's attention to local marine biodiversity, while eNGOs and community groups have used the designation as a starting point for raising awareness about conservation issues and educating people about the marine environment.

Awareness and education

Twenty respondents, mostly from community groups, eNGOs, or local authorities, said that they had put on events and activities to raise awareness and educate local communities and visitors about the marine environment and the MPAs, whilst other respondents said that they had become more aware of marine issues due to such activities. These events are not necessarily focused solely on the MPA but used as a catalyst for achieving wider educational and awareness aims.

Many of the community groups said that they were heavily involved in marine education, outreach and raising awareness about conservation issues. They described a range of events, activities and programmes aimed at a variety of groups, and attracting large numbers of attendees. Awareness raising activities included:

  • Evening talks given by visiting speakers e.g. photographers, academics, people from other environmental organisations
  • Working with local natural history groups
  • Giving presentations at larger conferences both nationally and internationally
  • Shore scrambles with children and families where volunteers take groups for walks and teach them about what is there
  • Stalls and activities at community events such as gala days and highland games
  • Marine festivals showcasing sustainable sea produce
  • Snorkel taster sessions where visitors are taken snorkelling in the MPA to see what is there and "snorkel trails" showing the best places to see marine life and marine features
  • Involving communities and children with native oyster re-introduction
  • Photography and film making in the MPAs

It is also worth noting that one MPA has achieved recognition as the first Mission Blue Hope Spot in Scotland and mainland UK (See Box 1).

Educational activities included:

  • Visiting school groups to give talks (covering nursery, primary, secondary and university groups).
  • Working with schools as part of a residential course. Sometimes this is linked to the local outdoor education centre and the John Muir conservation awards. Children from the surrounding area visit as part of the scheme
  • Linking to High Schools' wider achievement modules with pupils invited to work on a project with the community group
  • Arranging High School groups to do beach cleans, where volunteers teach them about conservation
  • Research placements with universities at Edinburgh, Glasgow, York, Strathclyde
  • Linking activities and placements with Duke of Edinburgh awards
  • Marine ID courses and shoreline guided walks
  • Training in how to conduct marine surveys.

Box 1: Argyll Hope Spot

Mission Blue is an organisation founded by the oceanographer, Sylvia Earle. The idea is that anyone can nominate a place that is special to them and which has certain characteristics such as a great diversity of species, rare species, the potential for restoration, or is important for particular processes such as migration or spawning.

Four community groups in the Argyll area came together, supported by many local people, to nominate the seas in the Argyll area as a hope spot. The area includes a number of MPAs.

Similarly, the campaigns run by many of the community groups extend beyond the MPA to wider marine issues such as marine plastic pollution. For example, an all-female yachting crew has been raising awareness of Lamlash Bay, in the South Arran MPA, and set up Think About Plastic Arran. Through that campaign they achieved plastic-free accreditation for the Arran community.

A few respondents highlighted that it was important to make these activities, and the opportunity to engage with the marine environment, as accessible as possible. Some of these groups offer a chance for people to take part in activities, to learn and to see things, which might normally be prohibitively expensive, or considered too far away or too complicated to engage with. Assisting with marine surveys, for example, can allow young people to use equipment and learn techniques which may give them valuable experience for future work and study.


Another issue that was raised in local areas was the importance of research and monitoring within the MPAs. This was highlighted by 19 (out of 101) respondents, mostly from members of community groups or eNGOs but also respondents from a range of other respondent groups. Some were involved in doing research themselves, whilst others were aware of research that was being done. Some discussed research that they thought should be done.

A number of the community groups carry out regular monitoring of the MPAs, with the help of volunteers, Seasearch divers and academics. Many cited the desire to ensure that baseline data was collected so that the success of management measures could be assessed, as well as a need to learn more about the Priority Marine Features that the designation was based on. There was also the view that a better understanding was needed about what activities would or would not damage designated features.

The potential to increase the contribution of Citizen Science was also mentioned by respondents. It was suggested that by offering training in survey techniques and putting on events where groups can collect data together, these activities could help to raise awareness about marine issues, as described in the previous section.

As mentioned previously, some of the community groups have links to research institutes and so have students and academics visiting the area in order to collect data and carry out research projects. Some of the outputs from these projects have been published. In addition, a few respondents highlighted areas of research that they feel need to be addressed. These included the carbon or climate benefits of MPAs, the potential benefits of MPAs for nearby fisheries, sustainable levels of marine economic activities.

Sense of optimism about the local environment

Twenty respondents, from a range of groups including the fishing industry and members of community groups and eNGOs, described environmental improvements that they have seen as a result of MPAs, and feelings of hope and inspiration at the thought of the future conservation benefits of MPAs.

Respondents described the improvements they could see on the seabed and the excitement of seeing some species returning. There was also a sense of hope that parts of the sea may be able to recover in the coming years.

A few respondents highlighted that real, significant benefits would not be visible for a few years, as these ecosystems can take time to recover. They also noted that the main aim of the MPAs is marine conservation, and not socio-economic benefits, and that it was important not to lose sight of that.

5.2 Community relations

Eleven respondents, mostly from community groups/eNGOs, discussed ways in which the MPAs had encouraged collaboration and brought people in communities together.

Respondents often highlighted how the MPA, and the groups that had developed around it, provided a way of bringing people with similar interests together. The Coastal Communities Network (CCN) provides a way for community groups across Scotland, who are focused on conservation initiatives, to share experiences and lessons learned, and to collaborate on projects. For example, four community groups came together, with the help of CCN, to apply for the Argyll Hope Spot accreditation, described in Box 1.

It was also highlighted that communities near MPAs expressed a keen interest in the activities relating to their local MPA, such as results of research carried out, management decisions, and campaigns. This was attributed by respondents to the events and activities organised by these groups.

A few respondents mentioned instances where environmental groups and fishers had worked together. They highlighted how both fishers and environmental groups want healthy and resilient seas, supporting diverse and sustainable fisheries. Examples of working together included a trawl vessel skipper inviting school children from the local conservation group to see his boat and how this form of fishing works, as well as a scheme training creel fishers in how to disentangle marine mammals from ropes.

On the other hand, conflict or tension relating to MPAs was mentioned by a fairly large number of respondents (27 out of 101). Most respondents who discussed this issue were from the fishing industry and from eNGO/community groups. A lot of the conflict related to some people supporting the introduction of MPAs, and others opposing them.

Mobile fishers tended to feel frustrated at suggestions that they were fishing in MPAs illegally. They acknowledged that a few fishers did break the rules, and this meant that they were then all "tarred with the same brush". They felt that that their livelihood was at risk, but that other members of the community did not think that this mattered. Some respondents also suggested that the MPAs may have exacerbated tensions between the mobile and static fishers, given that some are allowed to fish in MPAs whereas others are not.

Some of those who supported or campaigned for MPAs described receiving threatening or aggressive messages and in some cases have had to change their behaviour/lifestyle in order to avoid such messages and feel safer. This was particularly concerning when families were affected.

Some respondents described these conflicts from personal experiences, others reported what they had heard anecdotally. A lot of conflict seemed to play out on social media, which was still felt to be unpleasant to deal with.

5.3 Trust

Forty-five respondents (out of 101) discussed their relationship, or the relationship of marine stakeholders, with Marine Scotland and the wider Scottish Government and highlighted the perceived lack of trust that exists in that relationship. This could have implications for future MPAs, including social acceptability, compliance and engagement with ongoing consultation for MPA management measures.

Twenty-nine of these were from fishing or related industries, while the remaining 16 respondents came from a range of stakeholder groups including eNGOs/Community groups, Tourism and Local Authorities.

The main theme that emerged consistently across all groups was the belief that the decisions that were made regarding MPA management measures and boundaries appeared to be influenced by politics rather than evidence. Respondents felt that there was not a clear long-term strategy for the inshore waters and that management could, therefore, change depending on political stances. This sentiment was shared by stakeholders with a conservation imperative and those with a fishing imperative.

Respondents from the fishing industry, in particular, questioned the value of the consultation process, as they felt they were generally not listened to properly, and believed that decisions were often made before the consultation began. A few respondents highlighted that loss of trust in this way can prevent fishers and other stakeholders from engaging with consultation processes and other government projects. On the other hand, a few respondents added that, although trust had been lost, the relationship between the fishing industry and Marine Scotland had improved in recent years and continues to do so.

Many respondents from the fishing industry said that they were in favour of conservation and regulation, providing it was fair, effective and enforced. They highlighted that the mobile sector is regulated, while the static sector is not subject to as many controls. Some also raised the issue of non-compliance with management measures. A few respondents described a situation in which they might leave an area unexploited, so that it could recover or be conserved, only for it to be exploited by someone else. They said that they would not mind losing access to grounds or stocks, if everyone was losing out in the same way, and they could be sure of the environmental benefits. These points are important to further understand the complexity of the relationship between industries and decision makers, and to ensure transparent and trusting relationships are built for the future.

Finally, respondents from a range of stakeholder groups felt that there was not enough local management of MPAs and insufficient monitoring of social and environmental impacts after management measures were introduced. In some instances, this contributed to the lack of trust described above as the approach to management was not thought to be transparent.

5.4 Understanding of Marine Protected Areas

It is important to gauge the level of public understanding and support for MPAs, as these policies are fundamentally created in the public interest. In each interview, respondents were asked what they understood of the objectives and workings of MPAs. This question was also asked of members of the public during short structured interviews that were carried out in each case study area, as well a question about their degree of support/opposition to MPAs. These questions were designed to follow the wording and structure of the questions asked in the 2018 Social Attitudes Survey.

Social Attitudes Survey

In 2018 Marine Scotland commissioned research to improve understanding of how Scottish residents interact with the marine environment (sea and coastal areas), their perceptions of how it should be managed and their environmental concerns, amongst other issues. A survey with the public was carried out asking their perspectives on the marine environment. A small portion of the questions in this survey related to MPAs, and the results of these are presented here, in Table 5.1 and Table 5.2.

Table 5.1 Social Attitude Survey response regarding familiarity with MPAs, showing total responses, and responses from those living on the west coast of Scotland
How familiar are you with Marine Protected Areas ( MPAs)?
Not previously heard of MPAs Heard of, but know nothing about Not very familiar Quite familiar Very familiar Total
National % 35.8% 16.5% 33.3% 12.5% 2.0% 100%
N 786 362 733 274 43 2198
West Coast % 28.7% 12.5% 37.0% 19.0% 2.8% 100%
N 83 36 107 55 8 289

When asked how familiar they were with Marine Protected Areas, a majority of respondents said that they were either not very familiar with them or had not heard of them before (33.3% and 35.8% respectively). The survey sample was representative by gender, social status and region, so the majority of respondents are unlikely to live near MPAs.

The survey included postcodes and so it was possible to look at those living within 10 km of the west coast of Scotland (a sample of 289 respondents from the total 2,189). The responses are consistent with the national sample, however, and show that the majority of respondents are either not very familiar with MPAs or had not heard of them before (37.0% and 28.7% respectively). The portion of those who were quite familiar with MPAs was higher for those living on the west coast with 19.0% responding in this way, as opposed to 12.5%.

Table 5.2 Social Attitude Survey response regarding support for or opposition to MPAs, showing all responses and responses from those living on the west coast of Scotland
To what extent do you support or oppose the creation of MPAs in Scotland?
Strongly oppose Tend to oppose Don't know Neither support or oppose Tend to support Strongly support Total
National % 0.3% 0.9% 8.1% 10.2% 37.8% 42.7% 100.00%
N 7 19 178 225 830 939 2198
West Coast % 0.3% 0.3% 6.2% 9.7% 39.1% 44.3% 100.00%
N 1 1 18 28 113 128 289

When asked to what extent they supported or opposed MPAs, the vast majority, at a national level, said that they tended to support or strongly support the creation of MPAs (37.8% and 42.7% respectively). The response to this question, given by those on the west coast of Scotland, is consistent with the national trend, with 39.1% and 44.3% responding that they tended to support or strongly supported the creation of MPAs.

In summary, although there is low awareness of MPAs among the public, analysis of the survey results suggests that people are supportive of them. This is true at the national level and in west coast areas.

Case study short interviews

Several towns were visited for each case study, and in each one short structured interviews were carried out with members of the public and local businesses. Part of the interview used questions from the Social Attitudes Survey, so that results could be compared. The total number of respondents from each area is given in Table 5.3.

Table 5.3 Number of short interview respondents in each area
MPA Number of respondents
Loch Sunart to the Sound of Jura 12
Orkney 6
South Arran 11
Wester Ross 8
Grand Total 37

The sample size was small and not statistically representative, but the results are described here to give an indication of the local feeling towards MPAs.

When asked how familiar they were with MPAs, 23 out of 37 respondents said that they were not very familiar. Among those who said they were 'Not very familiar' 11 respondents speculated that the measures were to do with conservation of the marine environment.

When asked to what extent they supported or opposed MPAs, the majority in all case study sites said that they supported the creation of MPAs. It was common for those who were 'Not sure' to say that they felt some balance needed to be struck between conservation and economic activities. This was also said by some of those who supported MPAs. Eighteen respondents emphasised the need to care for the marine environment.

Stakeholder Interviews

During interviews it was common for respondents to discuss what they understood of MPAs and their objectives. It is important to know how people understand MPAs as this influences how they perceive the validity of the management measures, and the success of the policy. This topic was discussed by 72 out of 101 interviewees.

The majority of interviewees who discussed this topic, either understood that the MPAs were set up to protect special features, or that they had general marine conservation aims. Within these groups there was a spectrum from those who had detailed knowledge of MPA regulations (mostly in aquaculture, compliance and local authorities), through to those with much less detailed knowledge. Even those who mentioned protected features were not always familiar with what the feature was or why it was protected.

Ten respondents described MPAs as a fisheries management tool while 8 thought that their aim was to improve stocks. There was a perception from some that they were designed to reduce the size of the mobile fishing fleet, or specifically to reduce pressure on certain fish species.

Nine respondents mentioned that MPAs were perceived as 'nature parks' in which no commercial activity could take place. This was mentioned by some as their personal view, and by others as an assessment of how others view MPAs.


As well as wider economic impacts, the MPAs were thought to have wider social impacts. At the centre of many of these social impacts were a number of very active community groups. These groups organised a large array of activities and events with the aim of raising awareness and educating the public about marine conservation and promoting the rich diversity of their local inshore waters. They had made links with research institutions and collaborated on numerous research projects in order to gather data and improve understanding of the environmental impacts of MPAs. Some of these research projects involved citizen science, further engaging with the public around marine issues.

Respondents mentioned seeing improvements in the marine environment, which they attributed to MPAs. Many stated that this was the most important positive impact of MPAs and described feelings of hope and inspiration at the thought of the improvements that were possible and what that could mean for their local area.

Respondents from community groups described how the MPAs, and the activities associated with them, had brought together like-minded people around a common goal. They also felt that, in some cases, communities had taken ownership of the MPAs and were keen to hear how they were progressing.

On the other hand, it was common for respondents to describe instances of conflict or tension within communities, often between those who supported and those who opposed MPAs.

Generally, respondents understood that MPAs were intended to protect certain features. Others were aware of general marine conservation aims. Some respondents had the impression that MPAs were a form of fisheries management, a way to improve stocks, or an area where no commercial fishing activity was permitted. Some felt that confusions in understanding of MPAs could exacerbate conflicts and tensions and might lead to disillusionment.

Finally, according to the Social Attitudes Survey, and the short structured interviews the general public tended to be in support of MPAs but were often unsure what they were.



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