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Redefining “success”: The importance of socio-cultural indicators in marine management

by Anita Tsang

Picture this: You are snorkeling in a nearshore coral reef five years after it was declared a marine management area (MMA). The water is crystal clear, the corals are vibrant and healthy, and there are huge, diverse schools of fish! If you were an evaluator trying to write a report describing the status and effectiveness of this MMA, you would probably say it was working, and that overall it was a success, right?

A school of fish swim past a cool reef outcrop with deep blue waters stretching behind
Lobe corals with a school of Chromis fish. (Photo: Bert Weeks)

However, what most people don’t consider in these evaluations is the health of local communities living in that nearshore area. Has the creation of this MMA caused any changes to the social and cultural wellbeing of communities connected to that area? Is it enough to measure success only by looking at factors such as fish and corals? Where do people fit into this picture?

For centuries, Native Hawaiians have had close connections with the environment, understanding the importance of reciprocal relationships and caring for biocultural resources. These connections between people, coastal areas, and the ocean go much deeper than just a place providing food. It is true that many local communities still rely on subsistence fishing to survive and feed their families, but what is arguably just as important is that the ocean and nearshore areas also play a huge role in the physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing of these communities. Governmental marine management strategies often overlook the potential impacts that regulations might have on the local communities who depend on those resources. It is time to redefine what a successful and effective MMA looks like and how we approach the planning and evaluation process.

A man standing on a rocky coastline holding a small child, looks across the water at a small rocky island
Father and child sharing a moment and connecting with their coastal area.

To examine the efficacy of MMAs, most marine management assessments only look at biological, physical, or chemical criteria, such as changes in coral cover, fish abundance and biomass, or water quality. These are called “indicators,” meaning measures used to describe the overall state or condition of a resource or ecosystem. Yet, many management assessments fail to recognize and acknowledge the impacts that the creation of MMAs or other management strategies may have towards local and indigenous communities. Most evaluations do not examine the social and cultural connections that humans have with the environment, and the creation of MMAs often results in greater inequality towards indigenous and local communities who fish for subsistence or practice small-scale fishing and harvesting. Relationships with place can also be spiritual, ancestral, cultural, and/or emotional, and it is important to track potential changes to these connections by including social, cultural, and ecological factors in the planning and evaluation of MMAs.

Holomua logoThe Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources, Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR) recognizes the importance of socio-cultural indicators in marine management. DAR is currently leading the Holomua Marine 30×30 initiative (holomua meaning to move forward or progress), which is working towards effective management of Hawai‘i’s marine resources with at least 30% of each island’s nearshore waters established as MMAs by 2030. The Holomua Marine 30×30 initiative is a collaborative, community-based process that will incorporate socio-cultural indicators into planning and evaluation of success, allowing DAR to identify how changes in management or the environment affect the local communities who depend on those ecosystem services.

Nine socio-cultural design principles, or foundational objectives, have been defined through a series of workshops hosted in collaboration with the University of Hawai‘i’s Dr. Mehana Vaughan and Ph.D. student Meghan Tait. Workshop participants representing local community members from diverse backgrounds throughout Hawai‘i identified principles that were important to sustaining and promoting equitable management and community wellbeing, along with a set of suggested indicators that would help measure them. These socio-cultural principles fall into four main categories or values, which include:

  • Place-Based Knowledge and Education
  • Physical, Mental, and Spiritual Wellbeing
  • Community Relationships, Engagement, and Commitment
  • Efficacy and Equitable Governance


Two young women with clipboards stand on old coral looking out at a rocky inlet
DAR summer intern Jaimie Hijii and Grau fellow Anita Tsang collecting data on socio-cultural indicators at Kapo‘o Tidepools on the north shore of O‘ahu- one suggested indicator includes looking at human use and activities that may impact the nearshore area. (Photo: Diana Lopera)

As a 2021 Grau Fellow, I have been helping to lead and move this project forward, working with DAR and the Holomua team. The proposed set of indicators are currently being tested in MMAs or nearshore areas around O‘ahu to examine the feasibility, usefulness, and suitability of these measurements. The next step will be to expand testing to several more sites throughout the islands to gather more data. Indicators will be refined throughout the process, and additional stages will include soliciting input from collaborators and other researchers, sharing the data, conducting surveys and interviews, and hosting more opportunities for community engagement and feedback.

Eventually, when the list of socio-cultural indicators is finalized, the Holomua Marine 30×30 initiative will monitor these measures at all existing MMAs or nearshore areas in Hawai‘i to examine how management approaches may affect the social and cultural wellbeing of local communities. DAR will implement both socio-cultural and ecological indicators into marine management planning and evaluations, allowing them to adapt and update strategies as needed.

What is unique about the Holomua initiative, as compared to most conventional management, is that it focuses on enriching and maintaining the relationships between people and nearshore places. We recognize the importance of these connections, and are working towards a goal of creating MMAs that promote sustainable fishing, healthy ecosystems, and healthy people. A “successful” marine management area should be defined not only as a flourishing ecosystem full of abundant resources, but also a thriving, strong community where place-based traditional and customary knowledge, practices, and culture can be perpetuated through collaborative management.


Please visit the Holomua Marine 30×30 website to learn more about the initiative and socio-cultural principles developed. Funding and support for this project has been generously contributed by Resources Legacy Fund and the University of Hawai‘i Sea Grant College Program.

Anita TsangAbout the author: 

Anita Tsang is the 2021 E. Gordon Grau Coastal and Marine Resource Management Fellow, working with the Department of Land and Natural Resources, Division of Aquatic Resources to support the Holomua Marine 30×30 initiative. Anita received both her B.S. in Marine Biology and her M.S. in Natural Resources and Environmental Management through the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. Anita enjoys being in the water and surfs every day to keep herself sane.