Evaluating perceptions of marine protection in Australia: Does policy match public expectation?
A key conservation strategy to protect and manage marine biodiversity is the implementation of marine protected areas (MPAs). The level of protection from human activities offered to biodiversity by MPAs is not uniform but varies according to the type of MPA, as well as by jurisdiction. This diversity in the activities permitted within MPAs means that reporting total area of marine protection does not reflect the level of protection offered to biodiversity. As such, there is the potential for public confusion surrounding what is permitted or prevented within any one MPA. Therefore, it is critical to determine the degree to which the public understands the activities permitted within MPAs, and how this accords with the actual protection offered to biodiversity. To do this, an anonymous survey was conducted to assess the general knowledge about the protection offered by Australian MPAs and, specifically, the activities permitted or prohibited within MPA boundaries. The overwhelming majority of respondents (63%) believe that Australia's MPA system restricts fishing, when this is only true for 25% of the total area protected. While the activities permitted within MPAs vary, the broad pattern remains that respondents overestimate the degree to which MPAs within their state of origin prevent extractive uses. This study suggests that there is a significant gap in the public understanding of marine conservation issues in Australia, highlighting the need for an explicit conversation between policymakers, scientists and the public about whether current levels of marine protection align with public expectations.