The National Marine Sanctuaries Visitor Counting Process: A Process to Inform Marine Protected Area Management & Community Development

West Virginia University
Published: 21 April 2020
Last edited: 22 April 2020
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Summary

Through the National Marine Sanctuaries Visitor Counting Process (NMS-COUNT), marine protected area (MPA) resource managers gain valid and reliable data and methods to advance predictive capability and understanding of visitors. The NMS-COUNT process is an iterative framework that allows local management and stakeholders to add knowledge of visitor use at an NMS unit through each phase.
Building off the US Interagency Visitor Monitoring Framework, NMS-COUNT facilitates local input on visitation and communication with managers and researchers to develop and implement the most efficient methodology. Understanding visitor use can help MPA managers create better policies, leading to more satisfied visitors and healthier coastal ecosystems. Visitation data helps to efficiently maintain and manage local ecological, economic and social resources. NMS-COUNT helps resource managers adhere to limits of resilience within MPAs, leading to sustainable use and maintenance for future generations.

Classifications

Region
North America
Scale of implementation
Local
Subnational
Ecosystem
Beach
Coral reef
Estuary
Marine and coastal ecosystems
Open sea
Theme
Coastal and marine spatial management
Ecosystem services
Islands
Protected area governance
Protected area management planning
Sustainable livelihoods
Tourism
Challenges
Erratic rainfall
Floods
Increasing temperatures
Loss of Biodiversity
Ocean warming and acidification
Sea level rise
Unsustainable harvesting incl. Overfishing
Conflicting uses / cumulative impacts
Pollution (incl. eutrophication and litter)
Poaching
Ecosystem loss
Inefficient management of financial resources
Poor monitoring and enforcement
Sustainable development goals
SDG 3 – Good health and well-being
SDG 6 – Clean water and sanitation
SDG 14 – Life below water
Aichi targets
Target 1: Awareness of biodiversity increased
Target 6: Sustainable management of aquatic living resources
Target 11: Protected areas
Target 14: Ecosystem services
Target 19: Sharing information and knowledge
Sendai Framework
Target 6: Enhance international cooperation to developing countries through adequate and sustainable support to complement their national actions for implementation of this Framework by 2030
Business engagement approach
Indirect through government

Location

Savannah, Georgia, United States of America | Florida Keys, United States of America
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Challenges

Within the United States, over 172,481 square miles of marine and Great Lakes waters are designated as U.S. National Marine Sanctuaries. The NMS system consists of 14 marine protected areas and serves as a bridge to natural resource exploration, education, recreation, tourism, and many other ecosystem services. While various federal, state, and Coastal Treaty Tribe groups collaborate in the management of coastal and marine areas, there is little compatibility in methods for estimating visitation. Sanctuaries vary in size, may be located along shorelines or may lack a physical boundary when located offshore. This diversity of geographic locations results in unique challenges to counting visitors, especially when data collection must be cost-effective. Therefore, a blanket approach that does not incorporate site-specific details into sampling and estimating visitation would be unwise.

Beneficiaries

The NMS-COUNT process benefits natural resource managers in areas that do not afford traditional sampling of visitors. Beneficiaries also include visitors who use sanctuaries, and researchers who measure economic, ecological, and social impacts.

How do the building blocks interact?

The NMS-COUNT process engages researchers, agency scientists and managers in an iterative process of four phases: 1) research and identification of visitor estimation methods applicable to a specific site, 2) expert panel to provide input on site-specific methods, use indicators (social, environmental, temporal, spatial intensity, etc.), and confidence levels, 3) development of a site-specific methodology and sampling plan, and 4) field testing and analysis.

In each phase, methods are analysed for confidence in producing visitor estimates that are efficient, valid, and reliable, and adapted via feedback throughout each successive iteration. Iterations between the three phases ultimately result in a scientific consensus on quantitative goals for measuring visitor use at an agreed upon level of confidence. While NMS-COUNT provides both value and technical input through its phases, the optimal use of the process will be context dependent and reliant on collaboration at the site and regional levels. A future goal is to apply NMS-COUNT across other marine protected areas and any area where tourism may be notably context dependent.  

Impacts

The NMS-COUNT process provides value and technical input through its phases, the optimal use of the process will be context dependent and reliant on collaboration at the site and regional levels. A future goal is to apply NMS-COUNT across other marine protected areas and any area where tourism may be notably context dependent. Areas where estimation of visitation is not as simple as counting within a captive area (e.g. gate counts at a park) will benefit from the addition of NMS-COUNT steps to guide such computations. The process is designed to be used by both the academic community and resource managers, so the process can be replicated and extended over time. It also promotes management of aquatic protected areas in an adaptive framework, as expert panel stakeholders inform value and technical choices that are assessed through pilot studies and data analyses. The NMS-COUNT process helps understand the foundational visitor dynamics which lead to economic, social and environmental impacts within and surrounding MPAs.  Economic impacts are directly linked to visitor expenditures, while social and environmental impacts are linked to visitor experience and activity. A clear understanding of visitation through NMS-COUNT allows easier identification of these linkages among impacts.

Story

Robert Burns

Protected area management sits along a delicate axis of conservation and accessibility. In one sense, protected areas are designated as such for a reason, they often contain natural beauty, vibrant ecosystems, and many other desirable features worthy of protection. It is because of these remarkable features that visitors have desire to experience such wonders. 

This level of interest and admiration helps develop the critical need and challenge of gaining knowledge concerning visitation. Tourism in protected areas can cause tension between conservation and use.  MPAs represent a special challenge relating to the common absence of visual and physical borders. Additionally, marine ecosystems, like coral reefs, can react sensitively to changes in environmental conditions, some of which may be modified by effects of visitation activities. The essential part of the NMS-COUNT story seeks to create robust understanding of visitation in challenging areas that allows the management of such areas to seek a proper balance between protection and use. 

The NMS-COUNT process offers a solution to numerous challenges within the story of MPAs, built upon the best available science and localized input. The NMS-COUNT process follows the Interagency Visitor Use Management Framework (IVUMF), which provides a unified, collaborative approach to develop strategies for providing access to recreation, while protecting resources and managing visitor use.  NMS-COUNT also follows the Drivers-Pressures-State-Ecosystem Services-Response (DPSER) model, which integrates human dimensions and biophysical information into a framework that illustrates the complex interactions of human dimensions with ecosystem services. These interactions are involved in management trade-offs between the state of the ecosystem and quality of ecosystem services, a crucial part of any MPA story.  The NMS-COUNT process engages academics, scientists and managers in an iterative process of four phases: 1 research and identification of visitor estimation methods applicable to a specific site, 2) expert panel to provide input on site-specific methods, use indicators (social, environmental, spatiotemporal, etc.), and confidence levels, 3) development of a site-specific methodology and sampling plan, and 4) field testing and analysis. Iterations and replication of the process provides a conceptual way of thinking and learning about tourism dynamics, even if application of the process is unique to individual sites.

Contributed by

Robert Burns West Virginia University, School of Natural Resources

Other contributors

West Virginia University
NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries
West Virginia University
West Virginia University
Universidade Estadual de Ponta Grossa, UEPG