'It's not just about fish': Assessing the social impacts of marine protected areas on the wellbeing of coastal communities in New South Wales
Managing Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) is about managing human behaviours, but decision-making processes have traditionally focussed on ecological aspects, treating social aspects as secondary. It is now becoming more evident that an equal focus on the ecological and social aspects is required. Without the collection of information about social aspect such as impacts and sharing this as well as ecological information with communities, MPAs are at higher risk of opposition and social acceptability problems. This paper explores the development of a wellbeing framework to understand the social aspects, including the impacts of MPAs on the wellbeing of local communities. This research investigates two case study MPAs: Cape Byron and Port Stephens-Great Lakes Marine Parks in New South Wales, Australia. The MPAs are multiple-use and were implemented in 2006 and 2007, respectively. The research began with a review of the literature, followed by fieldwork, including semi-structured qualitative interviews with community members. Through thematic coding of the interview transcripts in light of the literature on assessing the social impacts of MPAs, a community wellbeing framework of domains and associated attributes was developed to investigate social impacts. Our analysis shows; first, local perspectives are crucial to understanding social impacts. Second, understanding social impacts gives insight into the nature of trade-offs that occur in decision-making regarding MPAs. Third, the intangible social impacts experienced by local communities are just as significant as the tangible ones for understanding how MPAs operate. Fourth, governance impacts have been the most influential factor affecting the social acceptability of the case study parks. We argue that failure to address negative social impacts can undermine the legitimacy of MPAs. We propose that the framework will support policymakers to work towards more effective, equitable and socially sustainable MPAs by employing much-needed monitoring of human dimensions of conservation interventions at the community level to shape adaptive management.