Beach environmental etiquette: Assessing public awareness of marine reserves on the central coast of California
For protected areas to achieve their conservation goals, visitors should be aware of reserve boundaries and follow the protective measures within them. However, lack of knowledge about the specifics of reserve geography and rules can lead to actions that adversely affect marine life (unsanctioned fishing and collecting) or disturb sensitive species within these areas, even when general support for protected areas is high. We assessed public awareness of State Marine Reserves locations and policies on the central California coast. Using surveys in the form of semi-structured interviews and written questionnaires, we asked beach visitors whether they had prior knowledge about State Marine Reserves. We provided half of participants with new knowledge about State Marine Reserves in the form of a verbal, short pre-survey speech. We asked participants to indicate if they were currently standing inside of a State Marine Reserve and assessed their self-reported likelihoods of performing several actions related to environmental etiquette such as following reserve rules. Finally, we tested how provisional new knowledge influences perceptions surrounding the importance of protecting marine habitats and human impacts on them. Overall, 60% of participants had heard of marine reserves, though this varied by participant region of residence. 33% of participants with prior knowledge and 13% of participants with no prior knowledge identified site protection status correctly. Over half of participants self-reported behaviors consistent with reserve rules and environmental etiquette. Survey participants who received new knowledge did not differ from the control group in their ability to correctly identify reserve location or in their perceptions of human impacts. Our results suggest that the information in our short verbal speech was not sufficient for changing perceptions, though over 90% of visitors stated marine protection to was already personally important or very important to them. Beach visitors intend to treat reserves well if they know they are visiting a reserve. However, because less than one third of visitors recognize reserve locations, a disconnect exists between understanding acceptable behavior for protected sites and knowing where to apply this behavior. Finally, we discuss the educational strategies of docent presence and place-based learning opportunities to improve awareness of marine reserves and their locations for local and non-local visitors.