Public perceptions of the ocean: four research gaps

Sep 15, 2022 | General

Close up of the side of a white jellyfish with fine tentacles against a dark background

Our global review explored the research into public perceptions of the ocean.  The review found an increase in ocean perceptions research – what people think, feel and know about the ocean.  But there are big gaps.  These gaps include: the methods being applied, the subjects being explored and the places where research is being conducted.  With an urgent need for insight into how people connect with the ocean, future ocean perceptions research needs to address these gaps to ensure public views and values are integrated into conservation action.

Ocean perceptions research provides essential insight into the relationships between people and the ocean.  This research explores the ways individuals understand, connect with and behave towards marine environments.  The findings are used to integrate public views and values into conservation action, monitoring, communication and more. 

Current ocean perceptions research is fragmented making it difficult for practitioners or researchers to engage with.  However, there is growing attention being given to understanding public connections with the ocean.  Our study published in late 2021 reviewed 349 ocean perception research articles to deliver a stock take of the research, explore patterns in research effort and make recommendations to increase its conservation impact.  We identified four gaps in the research:

Gap 1: limited methods being applied

Researchers have a wide suite of methods and analysis techniques available enabling them to explore the complex relationships between society and the ocean.  Perceptions research can be linked with theories such as those on behaviour change – particularly important in conservation.  Perceptions also tend to vary within populations, therefore measuring this variation is essential to fully understanding ocean perceptions. 

The reviewed studies showed that these techniques were underutilised.  Studies were predominantly conducted using questionnaires or interviews.  Researchers tended to focus on measuring public knowledge suggesting an underappreciation of other dimensions which can influence ocean perceptions.  And, whilst many studies gathered socio-demographic data about their respondents, the variation in audience perceptions was relatively unexplored.

Figure 4
Percentage of ocean perceptions studies measuring dimensions of public perceptions research (studies could be in one or more categories. n = 349).

Gap 2: Research is focused in a few countries

Of the 349 studies, 75% are conducted on populations in Europe, North America or Oceania.  The figure below shows where studies were conducted – and the many countries where there were no published studies found through the review.  The review was limited by only reviewing studies written in English, so studies in other languages may exist in other countries.  Similarly, research that is either not published in academic journals or not published at all may exist. However, this finding indicates that the benefits of ocean perceptions research are not being felt across all regions.


Figure 2 1
Number of ocean perceptions studies per country

Gap 3: research is focused on particular species and topics

A pattern often seen in conservation is that resources – funding, protection, effort – is disproportionately allocated to the more charismatic species, habitats and issues.  Ocean perceptions research does not escape that pattern.  Of the 31 studies which explored perceptions of particular species or species groups, 90% were on vertebrate species.  Of the 45 studies on habitats, 38% were on reefs, whilst only 2% were on seagrass.  In terms of the ocean topics explored, marine protected areas – a subject which has received much attention in marine conservation – was the most frequently studied topic (15% of all studies).  Only 6% of studies included in the review focused on public perceptions of climate change.    

Ocean perceptions research can be a valuable source of evidence for any ocean issue.  It provides insight into what people think, feel and do in relation to any given topic.  Gaps in research into less charismatic or less popular topics suggests there may be a gap in the evidence being used to inform their protection or management.  This is also perhaps an implication that the public voice is not being heard on those topics. 

Gap 4: more ocean perceptions research is needed.

Whilst the increase in ocean perceptions research is promising, it does not adequately reflect the important role of including a diverse range of actors and stakeholders from across society in ocean management.  For example, the review found 53 studies which explored public perceptions of marine protected areas – the most researched topic.  Globally, there are 18,500 marine protected areas indicating an imbalance in the scale of the issue and the current research effort.  Although there are various channels through which public opinions can be gathered and integrated into conservation efforts, ocean perceptions research is valuable and has much to offer conservation.

Although the causes of these gaps are not entirely clear, there has traditionally been a focus on natural sciences within marine conservation.  Social science skills are not routinely taught on conservation degrees, and interdisciplinary teams in research institutes are not the norm – although thankfully, this is changing.  Networks such as the Marine Social Sciences Network, alongside increasing availability of interdisciplinary funding and publication opportunities are also supporting a wider growth of social science in marine conservation.

One thing which is clear is that there is growing – and much needed – interest in conducting ocean perceptions research.  As ocean perceptions research continues to draw attention, the following recommendations can start to fill the gaps and increase the extent to which public views are heard in marine conservation:

  • Intensify efforts integrate social science and social scientists into marine conservation activities.
  • Identify marine conservation priorities – places, species, issues – to which ocean perceptions research can be integrated for maximum impact.
  • Build global capacity to deliver, commission, interpret and apply ocean perceptions research. 

Open Access article available

Jefferson, R. L., McKinley, E., Griffin, H., Nimmo, A. & Fletcher, S. 2021. Public perceptions of the ocean: lessons for marine conservation from a global research review. Frontiers in Marine Science 8, 711245.


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