Linking Recreational Boaters' Environmental Perspectives with Behavior Change to Protect a Marine Ecosystem

DeLorme, D., Neuberger, L., & Wright, J. (2015). Exploring Boaters' Environmental Views for a Marine Conservation Campaign. Applied Environmental Education & Communication, 14, 33 - 42.

Irresponsible recreational boating can degrade marine ecosystems. Propellers on speedboats can uproot sensitive plants, scar or kill fish, and disrupt the sea bed and shoreline. In addition to environmental impacts, degraded marine habitats can also have negative economic impacts on tourism. Changes to boating behaviors, such as reducing speed, can help protect the ecosystem. This study undertook an investigation of boaters' perceptions of environmental damage to Mosquito Lagoon, a natural area near Cape Canaveral, Florida. The goal of this study was to inform persuasive messaging for a responsible boating campaign by understanding boaters' environmental views.

The authors posed five research questions that correlated with five theoretical concepts that link environmental knowledge and attitudes to behavior change. These five concepts are environmental awareness, environmental concern, cause attribution, self-efficacy, and response efficacy.

The first research question looked at whether boaters were aware of the damage to Mosquito Lagoon. Although environmental awareness alone does not lead to behavior change, it is a crucial first step. The second research question explored boaters' environmental concern: if boaters are concerned, then they might be more willing to change their boating habits to improve the health of the lagoon. Boaters' level of concern would impact the content and type of messaging in the conservation campaign. The third research question asked how boaters viewed reasons for the damage to Mosquito Lagoon's marine life, which is known as cause attribution. If boaters do not perceive boating as a source of damage to the lagoon, then they are less likely to change their behaviors. The fourth research question looked at boaters' self-efficacy, or whether boaters feel they know how to avoid causing damage to the lagoon. Previous research has shown that self-efficacy is critical to changing behaviors. The fifth research question was related to response efficacy, or whether boaters believed that changing their boating habits would do anything to help improve the health of Mosquito Lagoon. Response efficacy has been shown to be linked to encouraging behaviors that might prevent damage.

This study conducted a phone survey of 404 boaters. Everyone who participated in the survey owned a power boat, was a registered boater in counties near Mosquito Lagoon, and visited the lagoon in the previous year. The survey gathered information about boating habits and demographics, and asked scaled or yes/no questions linked to the five research questions or theoretical concepts. Responses to the survey were analyzed using statistics.

The researchers found that just over half of the respondents were aware of damage to marine flora and fauna at Mosquito Lagoon. This finding indicates that the responsible boating campaign can help raise awareness of the need to change behaviors. Survey respondents indicated significant concern about damage the lagoon and that they attributed at least some of that to boating. The study found significant levels of self-efficacy and response efficacy, meaning that respondents felt as though they were able to do something to protect the lagoon through more responsible boating.

While this study helped to inform the recreational boating campaign, it was very narrow. Specifically, the survey questions did not investigate respondents' pro-environmental behaviors or intention to boat more responsibly, which may have impacted their views. In addition, some previous research has shown a generally weak relationship between environmental knowledge and attitudes and behavior change. The authors acknowledge that more research is needed to better comprehend each of the theoretical concepts and how they might interact.

The authors recommended that the responsible boating campaign focus on raising awareness of the damage to Mosquito Lagoon amongst boaters. They suggest that the campaign make use of boaters' concern for the lagoon through engaging and emotional messaging. Because boaters already demonstrated cause attribution, self-efficacy, and response efficacy, the authors were encouraged that the campaign might be successful.

The Bottom Line

<p>Understanding an audience is key to developing an educational campaign that resonates with its intended population. This study was designed to inform a broader responsible boating campaign for Mosquito Lagoon in Florida, which suffered from damage to sensitive species that was related to recreational boating. The researchers investigated how 5 theoretical concepts (awareness, concern, attribution, self-efficacy, and response efficacy) might be used to understand how boaters' environmental knowledge and attitudes can be used to encourage behavior change. They found that while respondents were not widely aware of damage to marine ecosystem, boaters did attribute some damage to recreational boating. The boaters felt concern about damage to the lagoon, and that their actions—through responsible boating—could help protect the marine ecosystem. These findings suggest that the responsible boating campaign needed to focus its efforts on increasing awareness of damage to Mosquito Lagoon through emotional messages to engage with elevated levels of concern.</p>

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