School of Engineering


Interdisciplinary methods to build a socio-ecological decision-making tool to inform marine governance and policy

Human wellbeing is closely linked to the health of environments we live in and depend on for our food, water and jobs. It is now widely recognised that sustainable management that supports both people and the environments on which we depend, can only be achieved through balancing economic, ecological and social goals.

Slow progress towards achieving sustainability goals has been compounded by a lack of communication between academics and decision-makers. In addition, policy makers currently lack tools to combine diverse data from different disciplines.

From the start, an important part of this project was to create a participatory forum that motivated scientists and policy advisors, working in the marine environment, to exchange knowledge so that a more practical and user-friendly management tool can be developed in the longer term.

Management tool

The project built the foundation for a management tool to assist decision makers in visualising how different management measures (for example, introducing a Marine Protected Area to address overfishing) can impact the ability of a fishing community to adjust to changes that influence income-generating activities.

In our study we brought together natural and social scientists using an interdisciplinary approach to apply their expert knowledge with empirical data collected from communities interviewed in the Western Indian Ocean.

This region of the world provides an important case study because it is home to many communities socially and economically dependent on reef fisheries which are vulnerable to damage from climate change, through rises in sea temperature leading to bleaching of corals, the home for many fish.

Bayesian Belief Network

A model was developed using a mathematical technique known as Bayesian Belief Networks to describe how the wellbeing of a community can be impacted by the introduction of a management tool such as a Marine Protected Area.

The model is able to combine and integrate different types of information, for example household socio-demographic data, non-market values for environmental changes, shared social and cultural values and marine ecological data; reflecting the links between them.

The model shows how, when these different types of data are considered together, (instead of separately, as is the norm), there are both negative and positive impacts of the Marine Protected Area on the community.

These complex interactions were graphically communicated in an easily comprehensible format to academics and policy advisers. Experts involved in policy confirmed there is a gap and need for an environmental management tool that can facilitate policy making so that any proposed changes are considered in advance of being used and explored in terms of how they might impact on the people that work, live and or depend on marine environments.


The project team has researched and developed the process to underpin improved policy making which considers environmental management from the three key pillars of sustainability, that is, economic drivers, social considerations and ecological indicators of environmental health.

  1. An exciting result from this project is the establishment of a new marine network that facilitates co-operation between both academics and policy advisers which is considered a key attribute towards building good marine governance and a more participatory approach in policy making.
  2. Whilst this particular Bayesian Belief Network was developed in the context of a fishing community in the West Indian Ocean, the members of our network from the marine policy and management community in the UK (Marine Management Organisation, Marine Scotland and Defra) indicated strongly that such an approach would be directly transferrable to a UK context.
  3. We also believe that it also has the potential to be adapted for use by conservation groups or non-governmental organisations with an interest in the sustainable management of marine resources