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Oyster reefs provide coastal societies with a vast array of ecosystem services, but are also destructively harvested as an economically and culturally important fishery resource, exemplifying a complex social-ecological system (SES). Historically, societal demand for oysters has led to destructive and unsustainable levels of harvest, which coupled with multiple other stressors has placed oyster reefs among the most globally imperiled coastal habitats. However, more recent studies have demonstrated that large-scale restoration is possible and that healthy oyster populations can be sustained with effective governance and stewardship. However, both of these require significant societal support or financial investment. In our study, we explored relationships among how coastal societies (1) perceive and value oyster ecosystem services, (2) recognize and define problems associated with oyster decline, and (3) perceive or support stewardship initiatives. We specifically focused on the SES of eastern oysters (Crassostrea virginica) and coastal societies in the northern Gulf of Mexico, a region identified as offering among the last and best opportunities to sustainably balance conservation objectives with a wild fishery. We found that, in addition to harvest-related benefits, oysters were highly valued for providing habitat, mitigating shoreline erosion, and improving water quality or clarity. Our results also showed that although most respondents recognized that oyster populations have declined, many respondents characterized the problem differently than most scientific literature does. Among a variety of initiatives for enhancing sustainability, spawning sanctuaries and reef restoration were well supported in all states, but support for harvest reductions was less consistent. Our study suggests that public support for maintaining both harvest and ecosystem services exists at societal levels and that enhancing public awareness regarding the extent and causes of oyster decline could garner additional support for stewardship initiatives. Collectively, the societal, economic, and biophysical complexities of the northern Gulf of Mexico oyster SES illustrate the need and public support for developing more comprehensive management schemes for exploited ecosystem engineers.

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Marine and Environmental Sciences


This article was published in the journal Ecology and Society by Resilience Alliance Inc.

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This article is made available under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license [CC BY 4.0], which permits use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium provided the original work is properly cited.