Governing coral reef conservation in the digital society

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


Coral reef ecosystems, which comprise the highest biodiversity of any ecosystem on Earth, are among the most threatened ecosystems in the world and particularly vulnerable to the effects of global environmental change. The term ‘digital conservation’ has been coined to denote the rapid spread and impacts of innovations in information and communication technologies on the science and practice of nature conservation. This PhD thesis investigates, from a sociological perspective, the opportunities and challenges brought about by digital conservation in governing coral reefs located in Caribbean marine protected areas (MPAs). The thesis sheds light on how different multi-actor digital conservation networks arise and perform, focusing on the meanings that people assign to the various aspects of knowledge production and use in the context of Caribbean coral reef governance. It does so by answering three research questions:

1) What features of multi-actor digital conservation networks in Caribbean coral reef MPAs are essential to understand processes of knowledge production and use by these networks?
2) What motivates, enables and constrains actors to participate in practices related to digital conservation in Caribbean coral reef MPAs?
3) Under which conditions do digital conservation networks in Caribbean MPAs contribute to effective and legitimate coral reef governance?

This PhD thesis consists of seven chapters. Chapter 1 provides a general introduction, presents the research questions and the research strategy. Chapter 2 develops the methodological framework followed. The empirical chapters (chapters 3 through 6) were written as scientific papers, out of which three have been published in international scientific peer-reviewed journals and one is under review. Chapter 7 draws conclusions.

Chapter 2 builds the methodological framework that guided the research and presents the methods of data collection and analysis, which followed a qualitative case study approach. As a starting point for this thesis, an initial overview of eleven MPAs located across the world  was conducted (Chapter 3). This exploratory study enabled the further delimitation of the research to one ecosystem type in one geographical region, as well as the selection of two cases for which digital conservation instances had been developed to address salient governance issues: one focusing on invasive lionfish monitoring and management (Chapters 4 and 5) and the other on seawater quality monitoring (Chapter 6).

Chapter 3 is situated within the information systems (IS) development literature and presents an overview of how actors associated with eleven MPAs interpret desirable data attributes (availability, accessibility, quality, consistency and security). The chapter specifically contributes to IS interpretive research on the field of requirements elicitation for IS design. Legitimacy and accountability are identified as important principles for all actor groups.

Chapter 4 lays the groundwork for the lionfish case. It presents a chronological analysis of discourse formation regarding the lionfish, a non-native fish species accidentally introduced into the Western Atlantic that has become a serious conservation concern in many Caribbean MPAs. In focus here is how discourse coalitions draw on scientific data to make themselves persuasive, and on metaphors of nature to convey meaning. The chapter examines how science and the media have socially constructed the lionfish invasion, and elucidates the interpretations of the lionfish by local stakeholders associated with seven Caribbean MPAs.

Chapter 5 examines the drivers and barriers to participation in various digital and non-digital conservation initiatives built around lionfish in five Dutch Caribbean MPAs. The chapter contributes to the environmental volunteering literature related to conservation citizen science. It looks at actors’ motivations to engage with and remain active in these initiatives, focusing on practices of data collection and data sharing.

Chapter 6 contributes to academic research of science-society relations in digital conservation, with legitimacy dynamics and the democratization of science and policy as central themes. The article assesses the social processes and outcomes of a community-based water quality monitoring project around Bonaire. The chapter offers a critical appraisal of digital technologies’ promises of democratic knowledge production for use in coral reef conservation governance.

Chapter 7 concludes the thesis by synthesizing the findings of the four empirical chapters and answering the research questions posed in the introduction, summarized as follows:

Five features of multi-actor digital conservation networks are identified as essential to understand processes of knowledge production and use: the dynamic nature of such networks; their voluntary character; the diversity of stakeholders and goals represented; the specialized skills required for participation; and the type of nature conservation issue at stake, as well as its level of polarization in society. These features confer multi-actor digital networks with opportunities such as flexibility and responsiveness to novel issues, efficiency and possibilities for mutual learning, as well as the formation of stable, effective and self-organized communities of practice. Challenges that these features pose include networks that are unpredictable, whose durability is uncertain and the quality of the data produced is questioned; potential miscommunication among heterogeneous actors and goal incompatibility. In general, the nature conservation issue addressed by these digital networks affects membership and the level of issue polarization shapes knowledge utilization (conceptual, instrumental, political).

Multiple and changing motivations drive actors to participate in digital networks for coral reef conservation. Concern for the environment is initially important to drive collective action, but as time goes by other motives complement or even supersede environmental values. Three distinct logics - the logic of consequences, of appropriateness and of practice - help to understand dynamics of (aspects of) behavior as people, their roles and situations change. Factors at the individualistic (personal, interpersonal) and structural levels (organizational, technological) enable and constrain actors to sustain participation in networks.

Finally, three conditions are necessary for multi-actor digital networks to contribute to effective and legitimate governance of coral reef conservation in Caribbean MPAs. These conditions include: a shared perception of a nature conservation issue as a crisis; use of solution-oriented frames; and fostering of win-win situations for project participants. While the first condition is key during the initial stage of network formation, the latter two are important for network durability.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Mol, Arthur, Promotor
  • Lindeboom, H.J., Promotor
  • Tobi, Hilde, Co-promotor
Award date8 May 2020
Place of PublicationWageningen
Print ISBNs9789463953269
Publication statusPublished - 8 May 2020


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