Democratic Management of an Ecosystem Under Threat

Democratic Management of an Ecosystem Under Threat

The People's Reefs

By Kelly Dunning

Strategies for Sustainable Development Series

Using case studies from Florida and the Caribbean, this book summarizes the state of coral reef conservation today, exploring the most effective way to protect vulnerable coral reef ecosystems while ensuring people’s voices are heard. 

Hardback, 238 Pages


July 2023

£80.00, $110.00

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About This Book

The conventional wisdom on coral reef management tells us that decentralized management, where the government shares power with local people, has both economic and ecological benefits. Three decades of research show that grassroots, stakeholder-focused management allows communities to collaboratively and sustainably manage reefs. “The people” began demanding a seat at the table in the 1990s, with decentralized management even becoming a requirement for international donor-funded development projects. Nowadays, the inclusion of stakeholders, with governments even asking for their help, is the norm. Much of the literature on coral reef management has documented the social and ecological impacts of an increasingly participatory style of management all over the world. But it is yet to be seen how this participatory management will deal with emerging threats such as climate change. 

Climate change is increasingly recognized as the greatest threat to coral reefs, outweighing local stressors such as overfishing. Similarly, global private multinational companies now hold concentrated power that rivals that of many national governments. Companies’ decisions made without any input from local communities are increasingly impacting global ecosystems, especially coral reefs. A puzzle has emerged for decision-makers and stakeholders alike: How can participatory management institutions respond to global environmental change? How does conservation policy enable (or diminish) “the people” to have their voices heard despite power differentials? This book poses some initial answers to this puzzle, drawing on the academic discipline of public policy.

We focus on democratic, participatory, stakeholder-driven forms of coral reef management and how they are meeting new challenges in recent years. It begins with the story of grassroots activists in the Cayman Islands who organized the first-ever people’s referendum against the incredibly powerful interests of the international cruise industry to prevent destruction of local reefs. How did this social movement contest power so effectively? Then, our focus moves to another case where grassroots activists, specifically the “Reef Guardians” of South Florida, organized to fight reef destruction in American courts. This case is unique and interesting as the American Federal Government was damaging reefs, working at cross purposes with other branches of the federal government tasked with protecting reefs. Why was the federal government violating its own species protection laws? How did people’s movements ensure accountability? Thus, the book examines how subnational jurisdictions, primarily states, manage immense coral reef resources through an in-depth look at the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. This sanctuary was the first stakeholder-driven marine-protected area in the United States, one that is rapidly adapting to global change. Finally, we examine how one of the most important democratic institutions in the world, the United States Congress, is responding to global change in American reefs. Congress’s response to climate-driven coral bleaching is interesting because lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are coming together to make legislation on coral conservation despite the partisan rancor and gridlock that characterized the Trump regime.


“This is an important piece of scholarship that applies a solid theoretical foundation to real world situations. The blending of theories from ecosystem services, conflict studies, and environmental governance within this book will speak to a wide array of readers, and I expect this book to be on the shelf of marine biologists and public policy experts alike.” — Joshua A. Drew, Assistant Professor of Vertebrate Conservation Biology, Department of Environmental Biology, State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry

“Employing striking photos with a familiar style, Professor Dunning and her students lead the reader on a dive into the rugosities of coral reef governance. Using clear arguments supported by salient examples, one is invited to consider the strengths of participatory management, comprising local adaptations in the face of human insults. A must-read for all who would conserve the beauty and diversity of the Peoples’ reefs.” — Porter Hoagland, Emeritus Research Scholar, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

“Based on case studies from Florida and the Cayman Islands, Dunning and colleagues apply policy concepts and theories to understand (and make suggestions about) how to successfully govern coral reefs. This is a must-read for students and practitioners of coral reef governance as well as those interested in adaptive governance in general.” — Tomas Olivier, Assistant Professor, Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University

"Democratic Management of an Ecosystem Under Threat: The People's Reefs" is a timely study in view of the peril of extinction facing so many marine ecosystem environments due to human activities enhanced climate change. "Democratic Management of an Ecosystem Under Threat: The People's Reefs" is especially and unreservedly recommended for personal, professional, community, college, and university library Marine Environmental Studies collections and supplemental curriculum studies lists —Midwest Review

 The 11 chapters of this interesting work provide a focused, informative, and engaging discussion of how climatic factors and other environmental issues are promoting the decline of coral reefs and how necessary the restoration and maintenance of coral reefs are, preeminently for the health of the world’s oceans. -- Choice

Author Information

Kelly Dunning is an assistant professor and Director of the Conservation Governance Lab at Auburn University. She holds a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is an expert on global coral reef management. 

Ryan Williamson is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Auburn University. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Georgia and is an expert in congressional politics including policy, procedure, and elections.

Amanda Alva graduated with her MS from the Conservation Governance Lab at Auburn University studying coral reef policy in the United States. She received her BSc in Marine Science from the University of Texas at Austin. She is currently a Marine & Coastal Social Scientist at NOAA for CSS Inc. 

Sabine Bailey graduated with her MS from the Conservation Governance Lab at Auburn University studying coral reef management. She received her BSc in Biology from McGill University. She is currently an NOAA Digital Coast Fellow working with The Nature Conservancy and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources

Daniel Morris graduated with his MS from Conservation Governance Lab at Auburn University studying coral reef management. He received his BA from Auburn University in Political Science. He is currently a federal Presidential Management Fellow.

Kasen Wally graduated with his MS from the Conservation Governance Lab at Auburn University studying coral reef management in Florida. He received his BSc in Environmental Science from Western Carolina University. He is currently a Coastal Resiliency Specialist with the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality


Strategies for Sustainable Development Series

Table of Contents

Part 1. The Climate Change Challenge to Coral Reefs that will require Conservation Theory and Practice to Evolve; Chapter 1. Introduction; Chapter 2. Climate Change, Coral Bleaching and Other Threats; Chapter 3. Status of Coral Reefs; Chapter 4. Approaches to Coral Reef Management ; Part 2: Case Studies; Chapter 5: The Case of The Florida Reef Tract: Bureaucracies, Participation, and Managing Novel Ecosystems ; Chapter 6. How communities are organizing to contest major infrastructure projects that may damage coral reefs: The Port of Miami Case; Chapter 7. How communities are organizing to contest major infrastructure projects that damage coral reefs: The Cayman Islands Case; Chapter 8: Cultural Services of Reefs: The Case of the Cayman Islands MPAs and What Would Be Lost With A Major Infrastructure Project; Chapter 9: How Coral Reefs are Placed on the Decision-making Agenda ; Chapter 10: Summary of case studies and the changes to stakeholder-driven, participatory management of reefs; Chapter 11: Call to Action: Participation and Managing Reefs Under Global Change; Appendix Chapter 5; Appendix Chapter 6; Appendix Chapter 7; Appendix Chapter 8; Appendix Chapter 9


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