Irish Sea : a socio-ecological system
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Recent research has highlighted the need to look beyond the coastal zone and adopt an ecosystem-based approach to sustainable use and conservation in marine management. At the same time there has been a growing recognition that ecosystem management involves coupled, complex socio-ecological systems which are inherently unpredictable due to the non-linear nature of their construction. The diverse social activities and natural processes involved in such an approach requires the inclusion of multiple disciplines which presently have very limited dialogues. It is apparent that there is an urgent need for new, interdisciplinary, methods with which to address management holistically and under conditions of uncertainty. This research aimed to examine the data-policy and theory-practice divides which currently hinder effective implementation of marine management. Key to this was to approach the Irish Sea as an interacting human-marine system, and to explore methodologies appropriate to interdisciplinary research in order to analyse why marine conservation is failing to deliver. Using Geographic Information Systems (GIS), a spatial `footprint' map of human activities in the marine area was developed from an initial survey of available marine data. The Drivers-Pressures- State Changes-Impacts-Response framework extended the scope to cover landbased as well as marine activities, and soft systems methodology was used to include data and knowledge from both the natural and social sciences. The results showed a qualitative dichotomy in the types of data involved, demonstrating how both the data-policy divide and the theory practice divide are constructed and maintained. The pre-eminence of scientific data in informing management decisions explained why conservation initiatives may fail, and why advances in theoretical understanding are so difficult to translate into practice. It also demonstrated some of the dangers of our present reliance on the Drivers, Pressures, State-Changes-Impacts Responses (DPSIR) framework for the development of sustainability indicators, particularly when based on scientific data alone. An ontological reframing of the issues was then suggested, and scenario development was used as a means of overcoming the limitations of disciplinary epistemologies when dealing with a complex system. It was concluded that, as well as the best available quantitative data, qualitative factors are equally important in management. Feelings, concerns, aspirations and values of individuals and society play a crucial role in shaping the research agenda and in implementing policy. Sustainability therefore can not be successfully addressed from within the scientific paradigm. Science can provide information, alongside other conflicting information, and subject to an irreducible level of uncertainty, but relying on quantitative, scientific data to solve what is ultimately a social challenge is inadequate. Sustainability needs to be addressed from a much wider paradigmatic basis, employing wisdom as well as knowledge. This implies the need for consciously questioning more deeply what it is we really want from science, for society and for the future. Environmental degradation, of the Irish Sea or any socio-ecological system, is an expression of societal values, which can change, and which we clearly need to change in the light of the present conditions.
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