Doctoral Programme on Marine Ecosystem Health and Conservation
 The MARES Researchers and their Research
Modelling the sustainability and ecosystem services of wildlife ecotourism in remote rural communities
PhD Code: MARES_11_13:
  • Host institute 1: P7 - University of Plymouth
  • Host institute 2: P4 - Galway Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT)
  • Host institute 3: P22 - Ecologic UKLtd
Research fields:
  • T4 - Natural Resources: overexploitation, fisheries and aquaculture
  • T6 - Habitat loss, urban development, coastal infrastructures and Marine Spatial Planning
  • Simon Ingram
  • Simon Berrow
  • Steve Fletcher (Reader in Sustainable Management of Marine and Coastal Systems University of Plymouth); Jonathan Gordon (Ecologic UKLtd)
Contact Person and email: Simon Ingram -

Subject description
The cetacean focussed ecotourism industry has seen massive global growth over the last few decades (Hoyt 1995) and the number of operators, sites and taxa being targeted has increased in concert with this expansion. Within Ireland and the UK boat based wildlife watching is now widespread and whale and dolphin watching often represent a core or key factor in many marine tourism activities. During this expansion there has been a change in perception and attitudes towards nature from the general public. Increased awareness and educational television and writing have moved attention from zoos, aquaria and circuses to natural habitats where the emphasis is on observing and appreciating marine animals engaged in their natural activities in the wild. Whilst this shift is beneficial socio-economically to the rural communities providing these services and indirectly benefits modern conservation agendas, care must be taken to ensure the development of these activities are sustainable and does not displace or disturb the animals supporting the industry. Various studies have shown levels of disturbance to cetaceans by vessels at varying timescales (Lusseau and Bejder, 2007), from short term changes in surfacing behaviour (Hastie et al, 2003) and school cohesion to temporary changes in behaviour and ultimately long term exposure to ecotourism has been linked to displacement of animals from their habitat (Bejder et al, 2006). However, due to the difficulty in measuring such affects, management tends to be precautionary with limits on licences and contact time based on common sense advice rather than empirical data. In line with contemporary ecosystem approaches to conservation management, management restricted to single activities such as ecotourism in isolation will not represent a comprehensive approach to mitigating anthropogenic threats.

Project summary
This studentship will apply novel approaches to integrated management to examine the functional coupling of ecological processes and the socio-economics of cetacean based eco-tourism. Sustainability of this sector is dependent on the ecosystem services provided by target animals and socio-economic benefits to coastal communites. Coastal and marine ecosystems provide ecological functions that directly or indirectly provide ecosystem services of benefit to human society (Costanza et al. 1997; Balmford et al. 2008). However an integrated approach needs to consider the impacts of a growing marine tourism sector on wildlife together with impacts from other coastal activities which may affect the ecosystem on which these organisms are dependent. Threats may include the disturbance from increased vessel traffic directly on the animals but also on the management of other activities likely to affect the ecosystem on which top predators rely such as fishing and coastal developments such as shipping and marine renewable energy projects.

The research studentship will focus on case studies in three regions around the UK and Ireland, (Cornwall, England; the Inner Hebrides Scotland, and Western Ireland). All of these areas have established cetacean and wildlife focussed marine tourism operating from a variety of vessels and targeting a range of cetacean species from harbour porpoises to fin whales. Field work during years 1 and 2 will be conducted at the sites to assess the current management strategies and scale of local ecotourism. During years 2 and 3 data will collated into a novel conceptual framework which will model functional links between the ecosystems supporting the cetaceans and the human activities which interact with these ecosystems.

Several approaches to the measurement and classification of ecosystem services have been proposed (de Groot et al. 2002; Frid 2008). This study will use a combination of Bayesian belief networks (Oliver and Smith, 1990, Olson et al., 1990) to construct a qualitative model of the system management and a model of ecosystem service classification derived from ‘The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity’ (TEEB) project.  Baysian belief networks are useful in examining qualitative links within a system and will be used to experiment with different management scenariosand evaluate changes to the system. The TEEB ecosystem service classification is based on a distinction between ecosystem processes and the ecosystem services experienced by humans (Balmford 2008). Ecosystem services include the production of food, climate regulation, flood protection, and nature watching (Defra 2007; Remoundou 2009). Ecosystem services, in turn, generate socio-economic benefits, such as commercial and employment opportunities. As such, a whale watching business can be considered as a socio-economic benefit of the nature watching ecosystem service, which in turn is derived from a suite of ecosystem processes functioning in such a way to support a viable cetacean population. The system is therefore interdependent, with the socio-economic benefit connected to the healthy operation of ecosystem processes and services.  However, the socio-economic exploitation of an ecosystem service can affect ecosystem processes that underpin it, thereby undermining the sustainability of the entire linked ecological-socio-economic system.

This project, for the first time will seek to generate a full understanding of the ecological-socio-economic system of whale watching ecotourism and the sustainability of this industry.

Project activities
The student will conduct field research at each of the three case study sites to examine the ecosystem management and ecotourism activities to collect data on ecosystem management, ecotourism activities and development strategies and habitat condition. These data will be used to construct qualitative interactive models for each location. These models will then be used to examine various management scenarios to assess the sustainability of current and potential strategies using the interaction of ecotourism and ecological functioning of the system supporting cetacean watching.

Supervisory team
Dr Simon Ingram is a lecturer in Marine Conservation at the University of Plymouth UK. Dr Ingram’s research expertise is focused on coastal cetacean conservation ecology.
Dr Simon Berrow is a lecturer in Marine mammal and Seabird Ecology at GMIT Ireland. Dr Berrow’s research focuses on coastal megafauna ecology, conservation and ecotourism.
Dr Fletcher is a Reader in Sustainable Management of Marine and Coastal Systems. Dr Fletchers research focus is the modelling of ecosystem services and sustainability.

Societal impact
This research will benefit communities in the UK and elsewhere that have significant socio-economic reliance upon nature watching. Through developing an improved understanding of the factors that underpin whale watching, the long term sustainability of the industry will benefit. This will take the form of recommendations disseminated to individual businesses through industry associations and through conservation and ecosystem managers.

Balmford, A., Rodrigues, A.S.L., Walpole, M., Ten Brink, P., Kettunen, M., Braat, L. and De Groot, R. 2008. The Economics of Biodiversity and Ecosystems: Scoping the Science. Cambridge, UK: European Commission (contract: ENV/070307/2007/486089/ETU/B2).
Bejder l, Samuels A., Whitehead, H., Gales, N., Mann, J., Connor, R., Heithaus, M. Watson-Capps, J., Flaherty, C., Krützen, M. 2006 Decline in relative abundance of bottlenose dolphins exposed to long-term disturbance. Conservation biology, 20: 1791-1798.
Costanza, R., D'arge, R., De Groot, R. Farber, S., Grasso, M., Hannon, B., Naeem, S., Limburg, K., Paruelo, J., O'neill, R.V., Raskin, R., Sutton, P. and Van Den Belt, M. 1997.  The value of the world's ecosystem services and natural capital. Nature 387, 253-260.
De Groot, R.S., Wilson, M.A. and Boumans, R.M.J. 2002. A typology for the classification, description and valuation of ecosystem functions, goods and services. Ecological Economics, 41, 393–408.
DEFRA, 2007.  An introductory guide to valuing ecosystem services.  Defra, London.
Frid, C. 2008.  Marine management to maintain ecosystem goods and services.  Concept Paper for ESRC/NERC. Transdisciplinary Research Seminar Series: New Approaches to Managing Ecosystem Services in the Marine Environment.
Hastie, G.D. Wilson, B., Tufft, L., Thompson, P.M. 2003. Bottlenose dolphins increase
Breathing synchrony in response to boat traffic. Marine Mammal Science, 19:74-84.
Hoyt, E. 1995. The worldwide value and extent of whalewatching. Report to: The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society. 36pp
Lusseau and Bejder, 2007. The long-term consequences of short-term responses to disturbance experiences from whalewatching impact assessment. International Journal of Comparative Psychology, 20, 228-236.
Oliver, R.M., Smith, J.Q. (Eds.), 1990. Influence Diagrams, Belief Nets and Decision Analysis. Wiley, Chichester, UK.
Olson, R.L., Willers, J.L. and Wagner, T.L., 1990. A framework for modeling uncertain reasoning in ecosystem management. II. Bayesian belief networks. AI Appl. Nat. Resour. Manage. 4 4, pp. 11–24.
Remoundou, K., Koundouri, P., Kontogianni, A., Nunes, P.A.L.D., and Skourtos, M. 2009.  Valuation of natural marine ecosystems: an economic perspective. Environmental Science and Policy, 12, 1040-1051.

Expected outcomes
1. Publications in international journals publishing results of ecosystem services, conservation management modelling. 2. Resulting models will serve as management tools for authorities responsible for wildlife resources management. 3. The outputs of the project will contribute to best practice in marine ecotourism activities. 4. Societal benefits include contribution to sustainability of whale and dolphin watching which will directly benefit dependent rural communities.

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Last update on 04/01/2017 -
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