An analysis of the emergence of adaptive governance for sustainable management of marine resources

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (awarded by OU/Aberdeen)


This thesis examined the emergence of adaptive governance in a national system of marine governance, with particular emphasis on the role of marine planning. Using a social-ecological systems framework, a model was constructed to enable analysis of Scotland’s marine governance system, as a dynamic and interrelated mixture of institutional processes at multiple levels. Three intersecting case studies provide important insights into factors which constrain or promote adaptive governance and the capacity of governance to respond to change: 1) analysis of Scotland’s new regional marine planning process and the extent to which it enables adaptive governance; 2) analysis of the feasibility of adaptive governance to support adaptation of the aquaculture industry to climate
change-related ocean acidification; and 3) analysis of the developing management regime for the expansion of industrial seaweed harvesting from an adaptive governance perspective. An analytical framework was used based on four defining characteristics of adaptive governance: 1) polycentric and multi-layered institutions; 2) participation and collaboration; 3) learning and innovation; and 4) self-organisation / supporting activities. A critical realist approach was taken to acknowledge an objective reality as well as the socially constructed aspects of both scientific endeavour and the functioning of governance, and to be critical of both in making practical and theoretical contributions.
The analysis was informed by semi-structured interviews, document analysis and a stakeholder workshop. Results show that a dynamic and supportive policy context is leading to diversification of governance arrangements and new arenas of collective action at different scales, extending involvement of nonstate actors in governance. New structural arrangements are providing opportunities for participation and collaboration at multiple levels of marine governance, including in partnership-led marine planning, devolution of marine asset management under the Scottish Crown Estate Act 2019, and
legislative and policy change emphasising local control for islands. Scottish Government is also explicitly promoting innovation in marine governance, with a phased approach to marine planning and experimental management approaches based on ‘pilot’ projects, to allow flexibility in design and learning in different locations and settings. This suggests a shift towards adaptive governance,
supported by new legislation and public policy on marine resource management, climate change and wider topics. Across the cases significant self-organisation is evident, with individual actors, networks, and organisations demonstrating capacity to be proactive and flexible at different levels of governance.
However, results also indicate important tensions to be addressed in the institutionalisation of adaptive governance in terms of influence on the management of human activities at sea. Firstly, the legislative regime remains crucially important in defining what is possible, both enabling and
constraining adaptive governance. It was shown to facilitate adaptive governance by providing the structural arrangements and legal legitimacy for innovative, partnership-led marine planning and in defining specific provisions for climate change adaptation, for example. But the legacy of existing legislation upon which new approaches are overlaid is problematic and the dominant regulatory
regime was shown to ultimately constrain adaptive governance and management across the cases. Conservation legislation is of low adaptive capacity and a key challenge exists in ensuring adequate ecological protection while enabling learning-based adaptive management, including of novel and controversial industries such as kelp harvesting. A balance between stability and flexibility in
governance is essential in order to be responsive yet legitimate but a level of reform might be necessary. Second, there are notably conflicting perceptions and attitudes to change among stakeholders which affects adaptive capacity and requires further study of institutional and cognitive barriers in adaptive governance. Third, while there is a proliferation of participatory arrangements, a
lack of co-ordination between governance levels was identified, limiting transfer of the learning and benefits from local governance models into decision-making in other domains of the wider regime. Poor integration also contributes to stakeholder confusion and management inefficiencies, as shown in relation to marine planning, and better connections are needed between governance instruments and interventions, with robust feedback loops and mechanisms for learning across scales. To move beyond the limits of conventional planning and management, and transition to adaptive governance, an argument is therefore made for greater reflexivity in marine governance, in order to: • Reflect on underlying values, continually re-negotiate normative goals, consider governance outcomes and key barriers;
• Enable transfer of learning and innovation between levels of governance;
• Enable rapid, innovative responses to social and ecological change, including crises;
• Reduce stakeholder confusion in proliferation of arrangements and ensure commitment; and
• Ensure efficient use of resources and reduce transaction costs of governance.
Critical insights are also presented to support future development of adaptive governance theory and
its application to the study of marine governance.
This includes approaches to understanding:
1) levels of institutionalisation of adaptive governance; 2) evaluating outcomes of adaptive governance;
3) the relationship between adaptive governance and transformative governance; and 4) definition and consistency in use of key terms including adaptive governance and adaptive management.
Date of Award11 Nov 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Aberdeen
SupervisorPaul Tett (Supervisor) & J O Kenter (Supervisor)

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