Keeping the Boogeyman out of your research

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By Dave Kellam, SeaPlan Communications Manager, dkellam [at]

Kids quake in their beds with covers over their heads because their parents told them the Boogeyman will take them away if they don’t go to sleep. That fear of an unknown menace sticks with people and it can be a big challenge to overcome. Even in ocean planning.

This summer SeaPlan designed and conducted an extensive ocean use characterization study of recreational saltwater boaters from Maine to New York. The goal was to collect scientifically sound spatial data on recreational boating activity and estimate the economic impact of recreational boating in the region. The impetus for the work was a data gap identified by the Northeast Regional Ocean Council, but leaders in the boating industry also recognized the need for science-based, stakeholder-informed data.

The research began with a mailing to 68,000 registered boaters in the Northeastern US to invite them to participate in a monthly survey. During the year we spoke with many boaters and boating groups to explain the survey and encourage participation. Most people were supportive, but some boaters thought they saw the Boogeyman in our research.

Perhaps fueled by political rhetoric or sensational media stories, some boaters viewed any attempt to improve ocean management as a scary plot to steal away ocean access or levee an unjust tax. Even though these are usually false assumptions, the fear of this Boogeyman undoubtedly caused a few boaters to reject our invitation outright. Distrust of science and policy is a real challenge for any researcher, resource manager or planning professional.

But we have a few tips for fellow data collectors that we believe help keep the Boogeyman at bay:

  • Tell a Consistent Story – Early on we coordinated with partners and the research team to spell out the survey goals and responses to inquiries. Ensuring that a boater gets the same story from everyone lowers suspicion.
  • Don’t Be Too Slick – Since our research involved direct mail, the look of the materials mattered. Initial designs were glossy and full color, but our focus group said they looked like marketing junk mail. We simplified the materials and printed them in black and white. This made the materials seem more straightforward.
  • Recruit Champions – Early on we met with boating club members and boat business owners to explain the research. These people endorsed our work in newsletters and with friends – thus improving participation.
  • Avoid Issue Creep – Boaters looking for Boogeymen would typically jump to hot button issues, like Marine Protected Areas or commercial fishing quotas. We refocused the discussion on the intent of this research, even though those were compelling issues to debate. Our stance was that policy decisions were made by other people — we simply are trying to accurately represent what is happening on the water.

The Boogeyman will always be part of marine spatial planning. As MSP practitioners, we need to address fears head on and remind folks that we are all striving for vibrant ocean economies and healthy oceans.

To learn more about the Northeast Recreational Boater Survey, go to

Dave Kellam is the Communications Manager of SeaPlan, an independent nonprofit ocean science and policy group providing practical solutions to balance development and conservation. Dave specializes in communication analysis, strategic planning, and database design. Disclaimer: the opinions and views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of SeaPlan's partners and associated organizations.