Research Profile | Mariela Pérez Ponzanelli | MSc Marine Science & Climate Change

We Are One Ocean
22nd February 2024

Describe your MSc project?

This marine social science project uses Cabo Pulmo National Park, a no-take Marine Protected Area in Baja California Sur, Mexico, as a case study to assess the use of Ecosystem Goods and Services (particularly ecotourism) as a major driver/incentive for ongoing marine conservation. Simultaneously, the project aimed to increase the visibility of the inextricable connection between marine conservation and human well-being in the context of global climate change, a threat to Earth’s life-support systems that is primarily caused by anthropogenic pressures. The socio-ecological assessment of Cabo Pulmo National Park employed an interdisciplinary approach of analysis and integrated environmental, social, and economic sciences.
The objectives of the study included the assessment of public perceptions and attitudes towards the local marine environment, ocean literacy levels, perceived threats derived from climate change, and individual benefits obtained by residents and visitors in Cabo Pulmo National Park; the collection of local and scientific knowledge on the distinctive features of the park, the main threats to its ‘success’, and the forecasted effects of climate change on the area, as well as the socio-ecological role that ecotourism has played in this particular Marine Protected Area. An in-depth literature review on marine ecosystem goods and services, ecotourism and associated public perceptions was carried out to analyse patterns, common themes, and gaps in knowledge present in the scrutinised studies published since ecotourism was coined in 1987 and with the oldest ocean perceptions publication dating back to 1988.
The findings of this research support that as of today, Cabo Pulmo National Park is one of the most successful MPAs world-wide; however, long-term success is about balance; balance between exploitation and conservation, and balance within and among the pillars of sustainability: society, economy, and environment. Success is therefore a sustained outcome, not something static that can be retained once achieved, and so is socio-ecological sustainability.
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What type of research has it involved and what skills have you learned?

This study employed mixed methods of data collection and analysis of qualitative and quantitative data. The data collection consisted of three main parts 1) Critical and systematic literature review of marine Ecosystem Goods and Services, ecotourism, and ocean perceptions, 2) A face-to-face public perceptions survey performed to residents and visitors in Cabo Pulmo National Park (n = 150), and 3) In-depth interviews with scientists, local community members, researchers, and representatives from governmental and non-governmental organisations (n = 12). The data analysis involved statistical analysis by use of Pearson’s chi-squared goodness of fit test and Cronbach’s Alpha coefficient. Thematic analysis was used to analyse all qualitative data obtained from in-depth interviews and open-ended questions of the public perceptions survey. Some of the skills learned were project time management, independent research project design and execution, preparing and conducting interviews, preparing and conducting public perceptions surveys, statistical analysis to measure and compare expected and observed results and measure internal consistency of data, performing thematic analysis of highly complex qualitative data, and overall social research skills such as building rapport with participants, recruitment strategies, and ethical considerations to protect sensitive information.

Were there any partners/stakeholders on your project?

This work would have not been possible without the support of Dr Héctor Reyes Bonilla from the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California Sur as a secondary advisor. A very special thank you goes to Luis Mario Castro, who collaborated with We Are One Ocean by sharing his world-class marine art in the form of photos and videos. Ruth Parasol from The Parasol Foundation Trust has my eternal gratitude as she enabled me to pursue my lifelong dream of studying and working to protect marine life through a full scholarship in the University of Gibraltar. Finally, this project highlights the fundamental role that all the people who willingly contributed to the results of this dissertation played, either through a survey, an interview, conversation, or any form of interest in this marine social science project that has marine conservation and sustainability at its heart.

Why should the public know about this topic?

The biosphere’s capacity of supporting all aspects of human well-being is intimately linked to ocean health. Social approaches to ocean conservation are fundamental in the face of anthropogenic climate change because human behaviour must be modified to create a stronger sustainable model. Socio-ecology reminds us that the economy is a subsystem of society, which is in turn a subsystem of the biosphere. In the past, economy, society, and the environment have been treated as separate, when evidence supports that ultimately, all of human well-being depends on the biosphere capacity and balance. From a socio-ecological systems perspective, ‘the delineation between social and natural systems is artificial and arbitrary’ (Preiser et al., 2018). The conservation success case of Cabo Pulmo National Park exemplifies the possibility of coexistence between marine recovery, improved local livelihoods, and marine ecotourism activities. This case can inspire a bigger scale economic model change towards socio-ecological sustainability, which is a significant part of the solutions required to tackle climate change.

What is the wider impact of your research?

The global environmental and biodiversity decline in marine ecosystems claims for strategies able to incentivise human behavioural change towards more sustainable lifestyles. By studying the relationship between society and the ocean, it is possible to create a more desirable future for life on Earth. Conservation and sustainable use of marine resources are the shared goals between Marine Protected Areas, Ocean Literacy, and marine Ecosystem Goods and Services (including ecotourism). Shared goals can in turn, translate into synergies. Marine Protected Areas where ecotourism occurs lend themselves as places where Ocean Literacy can be stimulated. Ocean Literacy, seen as a tool for environmental awareness, can stimulate public engagement and collective behavioural change towards pro-environmental attitudes and behaviours fueled by an understanding of the inextricable relationship between human well-being and a healthy marine environment. The challenge is to effectively communicate that the main contribution of marine ESs is to allow not only human well-being, but our species survival.
On the other hand, this socio-ecological research is relevant because the ‘success’ of Marine Protected Areas, a cornerstone of biodiversity conservation, is an ongoing process that requires a holistic management approach. Biophysical and socio-economic factors can threaten social, economic, and ecological accomplishments, hence the importance of addressing strengths and weaknesses of all conservation efforts through an interdisciplinary approach. While numerous ecological studies have been carried out in CPNP, its sustainability model remains a fragile conservation case due to coastal projects, increasing tourism demand, and internal issues of social and infrastructural character. This research supports that biological factors as well as socio-economic ones must be taken into consideration when assessing marine conservation efforts. Socio-ecological research on Cabo Pulmo National Park can build on more than twenty years of environmental studies in order to strengthen the local development plan, as well as contribute to a climate change adaptation plan to increase the resilience levels of the reef and its community.
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Comments from Head of School

Cabo Pulmo National Park (CPNP) is described as a jewel of The Gulf of California and also listed under the IUCN Green List, a global programme of certification aiming to achieve and promote effective, equitable, and successful protected and conserved areas by highlighting best practices, and providing a benchmark for progress towards effective and equitable management. Mariela’s research has sought to assess CPNP success from a socio-ecological standpoint, building on evidence on published biodiversity assessments of CPMP, with a view of understanding ‘true sustainability’ of the Park.
Mariela is great example of a student whose background was not science-related but her drive, passion, and sheer determination and hard work enabled her to embark successfully on an intensive Master’s programme.   We thank Luis Mario Castro and the Castro family for their support for facilitating this project. To see the amazing imagery curated by Luis Mario on Cabo Pulmo, follow him on Instagram @luismariocabopulmo.
Dr Awantha Dissanayake, Head of School (Marine & Environmental Sciences)
  • MSc

    Master in Marine Science & Climate Change

    Designed and delivered by expert academics and scientists, this full or part-time interdisciplinary programme blends theoretical study with practical, field-based work. You will cover specialist subject areas and gain the skills required to tackle the complex issues associated with the sustainable development of marine ecosystems.[...]

    1 Year

    No Placement option

    Full Time

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