Social-Ecological Marine Restoration: A New Vision of Benefits for Nature – And People

The sea goldie (Pseudanthias squamipinnis) a small species of colourful fish. It is a common sight to scuba divers in the Indian Ocean. Credit: Assaf Zvuloni
The sea goldie (Pseudanthias squamipinnis) a small species of colourful fish. It is a common sight to scuba divers in the Indian Ocean. Credit: Assaf Zvuloni

By Dr. Michael Beck, lead marine scientist, The Nature Conservancy

Location Post: The Gulf of Aqaba. Red Sea reef restoration projects.

Last month, I dove on some amazing reef restoration projects that have helped to transform the Gulf of Aqaba. From reducing effluents of aquaculture and the rebuilding of reef structures, to the eradication of coral predators and the protection of the reef in parks, these reefs were restored to have great benefits ecologically and to meet social and economic objectives – for tourism in particular.These restoration projects highlight the importance of taking linked actions to restore reefs. Most importantly, they highlight a change, challenge and opportunity to embrace a new vision for Social-Ecological Restoration.

Redefining Restoration

A few months ago, I helped review NOAA’s habitat restoration efforts for its Science Advisory Board. NOAA, through its Restoration Center, is a global leader in marine restoration. NOAA’s views matter. When the Board compared how NOAA defines restoration and what it actually does, we quickly realized that NOAA is delivering more than it is stating in its goals.

We think that NOAA’s work reflects a real change in this field, and they are making good progress in it. Here’s the dilemma: NOAA and many others (including The Nature Conservancy) define their restoration almost exclusively in ecological terms, such as:

“The process of re-establishing a self-sustaining habitat that closely resembles a natural condition in terms of structure and function (NOAA 2008).”

Red Sea Woman Snorkel A  Zvuloni
A woman snorkels above a revitalized reef in the Gulf of Aqaba, Israel. Credit: Assaf Zvuloni

Yet in fact what NOAA and many others do in restoration is far more than the return of ecological structure and function. Indeed what they do has even greater value to society; they do Social-Ecological Restoration. By defining and embracing this field, we could transform the support for and success of marine habitat restoration.

Benefits to Nature – and People

This is the opportunity that brought our group of leading restoration scientists and practitioners to Eilat, Gulf of Aqaba. We met to envision and define a new more inclusive framework for marine restoration: a social-ecological – or multi-objective – approach to restoration.

We define Social-Ecological Restoration as:

“The process of renewing the structure and function of ecological systems to explicitly meet both social and ecological management objectives.”

Social-Ecological Restoration is not just ecological restoration that happens to deliver – on the side – ecosystem services. By design, it aims to meet multiple objectives. It explicitly means trade-offs and balances; for example not necessarily doing restoration in the places that are the very best in ecological terms but in places that can deliver the best combination of social and ecological benefits. In the Red Sea, they chose to restore reefs right where the most people might benefit, not necessarily on more remote or pristine reefs. The Nature Conservancy is making similar choices with oyster reefs in the Gulf of Mexico restoring more reefs near people and designing them to serve as breakwaters too. This represents a real change from past efforts.

We do not think that social-ecological restoration is novel – indeed it is increasingly common. However, it is rarely recognized unambiguously for its potential promise and pitfalls.

Social-Ecological Restoration is already the aim of many projects, but they need more consideration in design and execution. There are important pitfalls to be avoided such as (i) poorly-defined goals that substitute vague social benefits for clear ecological goals and (ii) the use of non-native species or novel habitats in the name of meeting multiple objectives.

Israel Working Group Photo 1
Marine Ecological Restoration Working Group hosted by the Inter-University Institute for Marine Sciences, Eilat, Israel. The Workgroup includes Avigdor Abelson (leader), L. Airoldi, M. Beck, E. Brokovich, G. Kendrick, G. Krause, R. Francis, G. Edgar, R. Orth, P. Nelson, D. Reed, H. Cronin, A. de Blaeij. Credit: Avigdor Abelson

Done well, Social-Ecological Restoration holds the promise of delivering more societal benefits; to drive more support to marine restoration; and thus to yield significant conservation benefits.

The Nature Conservancy is working with many partners to advance Social-Ecological Restoration ideas through its Mapping Ocean Wealth initiative.


  1. Daveid Taylor
    September 4, 2014, 12:46 pm

    Great article we could not agree more. Our team has been wrestling with the balance of new underwater habitat creation vs funding for those underwater projects.

    It’s an age old battle. Be part of the “Tip Cup” crowd or innovate to close the funding gaps to create more AR spaces in a shorter period of time.

    The solution was elegant. Leverage waterfront resort developers and cruise lines to create artificial reefs that appealed to their guests. In effect re-imagine the artificial reef as a Lost City, or art park. It works.

  2. Wallace J Nichols
    Davenport, CA
    August 26, 2014, 10:39 am

    Excellent and important article., Mike. By overlooking these topics we have formally undervalued nature.

    We call the vast cognitive, social and emotional benefits and services provided by healthy oceans and waterways #BlueMind and there’s a growing effort to understand the science and better describe the value.

    The fifth annual Blue Mind Summit will be held in Vancouver in 2015.