The Wadden Sea National Park. Photo Colin Seymour

Photo posts reveal huge interest for real coastal nature

Friday 20 Aug 21

A picture is worth a thousand words. So we say, and as for a research project on tourists, nature and social media published in the magazine One Earth today 20 August millions of pictures tell an amazing story about our relationship with nature. 

What do people want when they set out to experience the world around them in coastal areas? Is it amusement parks with water slides and water skiing? Or do they value nature ‘on the rocks’ like in marine protected areas, MPAs?

New research based on the study of more than 120 million photos posted on social media by people visiting different marine destinations delivers an answer: 

Tourists are generating more social media attention about marine protected areas than about other neighbouring coastal areas. In those protected areas they focus more on nature as such, wildlife or wild landscapes, whereas photos from nearby, ‘control’, coastal zones are more focused on human infrastructure like roads, trains, restaurants as well as cultural and historical sites. 

See the scientific paper Marine Protected Areas provide more cultural ecosystem services than other adjacent coastal areas in One Earth 

The photographers also described their photos taken in marine protected areas in a more positive manner than those taken outside MPAs. The social media followers viewing photos of those experiences liked and commented more on MPA photos than they did for non-MPA photos.

"Now we know that counting the number of photos taken and looking at the content can reveal a lot about where and when people interact with nature"
Prof. David Lusseau, DTU Aqua

Taken together, the study points to the fact that marine protected areas create more cultural ecosystem services, CES, than other adjacent coastal areas. CES mean all the intangible services we receive when interacting with nature – the experiences in nature that will have mental and physical health benefits. 

“So far, we did not have a measure of this because CES are hard to estimate. But now we know that counting the number of photos taken and looking at the content can reveal a lot about where and when people interact with nature and what it is they focus on during those interactions”,  says Prof. David Lusseau from DTU Aqua who has led the research study Marine Protected Areas provide more cultural ecosystem services than other adjacent coastal areas.

But why is this important information? Dr. David Lusseau explains: 
“We as society tend to shoot in the dark when planning for cultural ecosystem services. We know that experiences with nature can do people good, but we are still very vague about what and where those CES are more likely to occur – we are, in fact, really poor at identifying and valuing CES.”

“For example, one crucial question we should really be able to answer, but are unable to do at the moment, is how much health benefits a neighbourhood gains from having a simple park? How many days in hospitals, doctor's visits, mental health deterioration are avoided by regular visits in nature like marine protected areas? But now, the social media sampling approaches to capture CES are getting us closer to being able to capture this”, says Dr. David Lusseau.

Cultural Ecosystem Services in Denmark 

MPAs are often advocated to provide more cultural ecosystem services on which local communities can build new economic opportunities to replace the activities displaced by these biodiversity conservation interventions. 

“Importantly, we show for the first time at a global scale that the average MPA do provide more CES, and we list the species and landscapes on which people focus at MPA sites. This has immediate applications to help MPA managers around the world, and communities considering MPA designation, account for these benefits and find ways for communities to exploit them sustainably,” says Dr. David Lusseau.

The study looks at all marine protected areas in the world, 12,000+ zones, including Danish ones. If you want to enjoy CES from a marine protected area in Denmark, you can for instance go to the Wadden Sea National Park in the south-west of Denmark.

Marine protected areas have different reasons to be protected and different ways by which they are protected. There are regional, national and international regulations and legislations driving the establishment of MPAs. 

“The Wadden Sea National Park raises a good point about MPAs: All sorts of areas are classified as marine protected areas. A positive way to see this is that there are plenty of regulatory opportunities to establish protected areas at sea,” says David Lusseau and elaborates on the issue of diversity: 

“A more cautious way to look at this is that it is a right mess: MPAs can be anything from ‘paper parks’’ – they are just ‘lines’ on the water where nothing happens – to zones where all human activities are fully excluded. A national park designation is one of the more robust way to designate an MPA. Internationally, we have a consensus drive to push for more MPAs to be established. Here we show that all MPAs, regardless of designation, have on average a net benefit. We just need now to help communities living with MPAs find ways to make the most of those CES sustainably.”

The secondary exposure 

Marine biodiversity loss is a global threat for the integrity of ecosystem services. The marine protected areas are advocated as a key tool to manage the restoration and sustainable use of the oceans. They now cover 8% of global oceans.” 

“In the policy arena, for all nations, and for inter-governmental organisations, our study, and the body of work on which it builds showing that we can understand human-nature interactions from social media posts, provides a new avenue to value nature in a more comprehensive manner,” says David Lusseau.

Even the pictures themselves of nature in protected areas are believed to create value:

“At a time when the movement of people has been restricted because of the pandemic, and people are spending more time online, it seems also that posting content about MPA natural assets can be a way for people living far away from it to enjoy it and value it. This is what we called “secondary exposure” to nature – viewing the experience of others interacting with nature online.”

“We propose that social media platforms could play a crucial ‘marketplace’ role for public and private community initiatives to build derivatives from MPA nature assets which could have health and personal benefits for those able to enjoy those secondary exposure online. This would help “nature-rich communities” connect with distant ‘markets’ without having to rely only on people visiting physically those places,” says David Lusseau and makes a final point:

“Finding ways to derive incomes also from secondary exposure to nature for nature-rich communities would directly address one of the key objective of the European Green Deal, to decouple economic growth from natural resource exploitation.”

PHOTO: The picture is from the Wadden Sea, which has been designated a National Park and is also on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Photo: Colin Seymour / Wadden Sea National Park


About the study and the gathering of photo data

  • The researchers sampled more than 120 million photos on Flickr and used a paired design to compare the CES provided by all MPAs and control sites
  • The study is based on photos taken in one of the 12,000+ MPAs around the world or taken in a marine area adjacent to those MPAs in the same location – the latter areas are used as controls
  • The increased attention found in the study is expressed by a 7- to 20-fold increase in the number of photos taken in an MPA at any given destination and those photos concentrating on CES and the species and habitat providing those CES