Examining stakeholder perceptions of oyster ecosystem services using fuzzy cognitive mapping

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Nature provides numerous ecosystem services to people, yet the prioritization of these services often depends on the goals of various stakeholder groups. The eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica) is an ecologically important species along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts of the United States, where it provides essential fish habitat and may mitigate against climatic variations in urban areas. The eastern oyster also supports a multimillion dollar aquaculture industry in coastal communities. Recent declines in eastern oyster populations, however, have spurred widespread restoration activities. Here, we look at three expert stakeholder groups (academics, nongovernmental organizations, and governmental agencies) in Rhode Island (United States) to understand how stakeholder perceptions of oyster ecosystem services differ. Stakeholders' mental models showed differences among the groups' topologies and components, although the terms “Water Quality” and “Habitat/Structural Complexity” were prioritized in all the groups. Our results suggest that there is substantial intergroup variation, but that there are common threads around which future oyster restoration and management programs can be designed. By making these mental models of ecosystem services explicit, we illuminate tacit assumptions held by different stakeholders of the oyster stakeholder community in Rhode Island. In doing so, we highlight opportunities for more efficient collaboration around commonly shared goals for sustainable social and ecological management.

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Conservation Science and Practice