6. Normative reference levels

In the PSP parlance, a target is defined as a desired state (Puget Sound Partnership 2009b). Consequently, the process of establishing desirability must comprise not just ecological understanding, but also societal values (Campbell et al. 2009, Rapport 1992). A powerful way to collect and organize data about societal values is the normative approach (Vaske et al. 1993). Norms define what is generally accepted within a cultural context, and may serve as societal standards to evaluate ecosystem conditions, human activities, or management strategies.

Norms are typically described by means of a graphic device referred to as a social norm curve (Figure 14; (Jackson 1965). In applying this concept to ecosystem targets, the x-axis represents environmental stressors and the y-axis portrays stakeholder survey responses. Thus, social norm curves might represent the results from structured surveys in which respondents are asked about the acceptability of different ecosystem states, which vary with changes in pressures like water quality or habitat modification. The goal of stakeholder surveys is to identify the acceptability of alternative ecosystem scenarios that illustrate trade-offs among different aspects of ecosystem health (e.g., food web health, water quality, habitat, key species, and human well-being). Alternative scenarios can be portrayed using easily-interpreted, stylized artistic renderings of the ecosystem under consideration that highlight key trade-offs among different ecosystem components (Bateman et al. 2009, McCallum and Rollins 2005). Targets and benchmarks can be set based on scenarios that are deemed minimally acceptable by the average respondent, subject to legal, regulatory or other constraints. A key challenge with this approach is dealing with the fact ecosystem conditions are rarely produced by one individual’s behavior but by the cumulative effects of many people’s behavior.

In Puget Sound, the PSP and the World Resources Institute have already initiated the process of soliciting feedback from stakeholders about how they define a healthy Puget Sound (Iceland et al. 2008). This work could be built upon by extending social norms surveys to Native American tribes and stakeholder groups (e.g., commercial fishers, recreational fishers, agricultural interests, builders and developers, members of environmental organizations, coastal homeowners, etc.). In other marine systems around the world, similar surveys have been conducted by soliciting formal feedback about reference levels from regional scientists (Shin et al. 2010). By establishing ranges of acceptability, the PSP can ensure that its targets are in sync with the desires of the public which they are meant to serve. Thus rigorously conducted normative surveys provide a tool to inform target selection within the realm of what is ecologically and legally possible and appropriate.

Figure 14. Hypothetical social norm curve. The x-axis shows increasing ecosystem stress from poor water quality or habitat, and the y-axis portrays stakeholder values regarding the desirability of different ecosystem states. Y-axis values >0 reflect socially acceptable ecosystem states, and the range of responses reflects the importance of ecosystem status to stakeholders.

Figure 14