Coral reefs have been increasingly reported as ecosystems in severe “crisis” and decline, with estimates of irreparably damaged reefs to be around 54%, and possible losses of 15-20% more over the next half-century. The urgency to mitigate these declines has increased in recent years as the effects of global climate change have become apparent alongside steadily increasing population pressures in coastal communities. However, management efforts are generally paralyzed by a variety of competing discourses regarding these ecosystems, in part because of a general lack of consensus about which environmental mitigation measures to take and across which geographic scales they must be implemented. The inaction that results by normative scientific debate is not because of a lack of scientific information and knowledge, but rather can be directly attributed to 1) an over-emphasis of scientific uncertainty about the environment and mitigation suggestions, 2) a wide range of interpretations, preferences and assumptions regarding both human and physical geographic differences between reef environments and across regions, and 3) the inherent challenges posed by conducting science in the marine environment. The manner in which truth-claims are accepted as dominant paradigms therefore is not a disembodied and de-located objective process, but rather contingent on how individuals––in this case, coral reef scientists and professionals––generate and preference truth-claims, and the manner in which these claims are internalized and expressed in the epistemic community as fact and subsequently filter into associated socio-political networks.
This work applied Q-methodology, a mixed method that can characterize human subjectivity, to find and rank consensus on scientific and management discourses in coral reef environmental issues. Statements were generated from peer-reviewed publications and grey literatures, conferences and conversations with those in the epistemic community, and surveys were developed and made available on the web through Flash-Q. Two surveys were devised: the first consisting of 36 statements regarding scientific issues, and the second consisting of 43 statements that dealt with management discourses. Three factors or “attitudes” (Gaian Communalists, Science-oriented Pessimists; Locally-oriented Positivists) inherent in the community were isolated in the science survey, and four (Community-centered Humanists; Scientific Idealists; Skeptic Utilitarianists; Political Reformists) in the management survey. Queried discourses were then ranked and organized by their levels of agreement and intensity of perceived priority.
The greatest disagreement within scientific discourses involved assumptions about the effects and proposed management actions that should be taken in the context of global climate change, and whether these systems were experiencing species shifts or an extinction event. The most consensus regarding scientific issues was in support of imposing harsher use-regulations, clarifying the effects of fishing activities, and better understanding cultural patterns of reef use. For the management survey, there was less agreement overall, with the greatest disagreement regarding estimations of the global feedback systems and how they influence the success of reef management, and the apparent effects of regional connectivity and its relationship to reef resilience within MPAs. The greatest agreement emphasized the importance of understanding local community use-patterns for marine protected areas (MPAs) to be effective and that severely restricting subsistence and artisenal fishing would not lead to better conservation.
This work provides evidence that one can quantitatively approach some measure of consilience by sorting the muddled uncertainties and ranking equally-emphasized issues of urgency regarding environmental conservation discourses, which most often lead to policy-inaction. Through this method, one can identify priorities that are based on consensual views held by respondents and provide a diplomatic route of negotiating policies based on the apparent attitudes that are prevalent and can be expected to exist within the epistemic community. Additionally, this work provides greater insight on the particular influences of scientific and management assertions, both within and outside of the epistemic networks that generate them. This study affirms how place (and space) is attached to discourses regarding scientific findings and conclusions about reef systems, and provides a tactic to confidently apply management strategies across a range of contexts and the variety of environments, polities and geographies inhabited by reef systems.