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Joint knowledge helps to control conflicts in the Wadden Sea region

11 January 2017
Dutch Wadden Sea coast

The Dutch Wadden Sea coast is a unique area of natural beauty, which has been heavily protected since the 1960s. Nature management in the Wadden Sea is sometimes at odds with fishing and recreation interests, for example, or ideas about coastal defence. PhD candidate Franke van der Molen examined how the parties involved manage to find successful solutions to their problems, despite their conflicting interests. Intensive consultation, clear rules and shared knowledge are essential ingredients, says Van der Molen. He will be awarded a PhD on 13 January 2017 for his research into the role of knowledge in coastal management.

Franke van der Molen studied examples in which the interests of nature management conflicted with those of the people using the Wadden Sea region: sand replenishment, recreational sailing and mussel fishing. Scientific knowledge plays a major role in controversial issues of this kind. If parties join forces to accrue and share knowledge, they will be in a better position to control conflicts and cope with the unpredictability of nature.

Mussel fishing

Over the past two decades, mussel fishing has been a bone of contention between fishermen and wildlife conservationists. Their differing views of Wadden Sea nature led to countless conflicts about the impact and admissibility of fishing. Van der Molen wanted to find out how these opposing parties have managed to work together since 2008 to develop more sustainable methods of mussel fishing.


Van der Molen: ‘Many factors helped to get this transition off the ground, but a joint agreement reached in 2008 was an important milestone. The parties formulated a joint goal (to switch to sustainable mussel fishing by 2020), and laid down rules to ensure a smooth working process. They decided to consult and exchange knowledge rather than resolve their disputes in the courts. In addition, the parties opted to achieve their joint goal of sustainable mussel farming by taking a learning-by-experience approach. Although the parties will never agree entirely, this approach has created a workable situation with fewer conflicts.’

Separate knowledge systems

In the case of mussel fishing, much of the mutual distrust and lack of understanding was caused by the existence of separate knowledge systems. Van der Molen explains: ‘The parties involved each had their own knowledge infrastructure with their own network of experts and research institutes. In addition, the mussel farmers were interested in learning about ways to optimize their working practices while the wildlife conservationists focused on ways of restoring the ecosystem. As a result, reports issued by one party were often interpreted quite differently or even rejected by the other party.’

Acquiring knowledge together

According to Van der Molen, the solution lies in acquiring knowledge together and joint fact-finding: ‘First of all, it’s important to agree which knowledge is necessary. The next step is to find experts who are trusted by all the parties concerned to build up and apply this knowledge. It is crucial that all parties are involved at every stage of the knowledge development process. This generates support for the knowledge base.

Sand replenishment

The collaboration between the Directorate-General for Public Works and Water Management and the nature organizations regarding sand replenishment (to counter coastal erosion) is a good example. The Directorate-General for Public Works and Water Management and the nature organizations had very different ideas and questions about the effect of sand replenishment on wildlife. By conducting joint research, they compiled a body of knowledge that can be used for coastal management, while also addressing the questions and concerns of the nature organizations.

Natural dynamics

The very act of acquiring and exchanging knowledge together also creates opportunities for dealing with the dynamics and unpredictability of natural systems. Van der Molen: ‘The parts of the Wadden Sea region used by birds and seals to rest and forage are constantly changing. Thanks to monitoring by volunteers from nature and leisure organizations and the knowledge exchanged mutually, there is now more knowledge about changes in nature. As a result, it is easier to open certain sections of the area to recreational users or close them off to prevent disturbance to wildlife. It allows recreational use and wildlife conservation to be coordinated in line with the natural dynamics of the region.’

Curriculum vitae

Franke van der Molen (1978, Emmeloord) studied Science Dynamics at the University of Amsterdam. After graduating, he spent time working for the Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR). Van der Molen will be awarded a PhD on 13 January 2017 by Prof. M.P. Gerkema and second supervisors Dr J.A.A. Swart and Dr H.J. van der Windt . His thesis is entitled Governing knowledge: Understanding the interplay between knowledge and coastal governance. The research, which was carried out at the Science and Society Group of the ESRIG research institute, was funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) and the Waddenacademie. Van der Molen now works as a post-doc researcher in Responsible Research and Innovation at Radboud University Nijmegen, department Philosophy and Science Studies.

Last modified:04 June 2021 09.21 a.m.
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