MPA Perspective: Preparing for Negotiations on Coastal Issues

MPA News

Editor's note: Kristy Ellenberg, author of the following perspective piece, is a facilitator, trainer, and environmental consultant. She has developed and taught courses on negotiation and conflict management across the US, including a workshop - "Negotiating for Coastal Resources" - offered by the (US) National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Coastal Services Center and the National MPA Center's Training and Technical Assistance Institute. She has also been involved in an array of negotiations and public processes on land-use issues, coastal resource management, and organizational development.

In this perspective piece, Ellenberg advises MPA managers on how to prepare for negotiations. Her advice is based on her own experiences in negotiations and public processes, as well as feedback she has received from attendees of the "Negotiating for Coastal Resources" workshop.

By Kristy T. Ellenberg, Ellenberg Associates

For coastal resource managers, negotiation skills are essential whether working collaboratively with program partners, defining management practices for an MPA, or participating in land-use decisions that will affect coastal resources. While negotiation is basically a communication process for reaching resolution on an issue, negotiations in coastal settings can become quite complex. This is due to several reasons, including the variety of disciplines and stakeholders involved, the public nature of these decisions, the time constraints on decision-making, and the significant impact that decisions can have on natural and economic resources.

The first and most important step in the negotiation process is to prepare well for it. Taking time to analyze factors and anticipate the responses of other parties will help managers make better offers and evaluate solutions more effectively during negotiations. Using the following strategies during planning can lead to a successful negotiation that builds or maintains relationships and produces a wise agreement:

Understand the scope of the negotiation.

Defining the scope of the negotiation will help the manager keep discussions focused and productive. This step determines:

  • The exact issues to be addressed, creating a common understanding for participants of why they are there;
  • The parties to the negotiation, insuring all essential parties are involved early in the process;
  • The timeframe for decision-making; and
  • The authority of each party.

Confirming the authority of parties as negotiations begin may prevent discussions from stalling when parties seek outside approval of solutions from a superior or on behalf of an organization.

Identify and anticipate the interests of all parties.

When negotiations begin, most parties already hold policy positions. In coastal scenarios, for example, some groups may favor designation of a no-take zone while others will oppose it. Negotiations that focus exclusively on positions generally polarize the parties and damage relationships, and may produce unwise agreements or no agreement at all.

Therefore, it is best for managers to concentrate on the interests underlying each party's position. The interests of parties are the motivations for why they take a position, usually based upon needs, desires, concerns, or fears. Interests of parties in coastal scenarios can include such things as preserving resources and biodiversity, increasing economic development through tourism, or sustaining commercial fishing fleets.

In preparing for negotiations, the manager should attempt to predict the interests of the other parties involved, as well as identify the interests of his or her own agency. In doing so, the manager may see where shared interests lie and form solutions to meet the primary interests of all parties involved. Managers will discover that for each position there can be multiple interests and for each interest there can be multiple solutions, which will allow for more creative discussions in resolving issues.

For example, managers have implemented many different solutions to meet the dual objectives of conserving biodiversity while also maintaining fisheries. These include agreements to close marginally productive sites while limiting the number of fishers in an area through licensing, or agreements to compensate fishers where productive sites are closed. Each solution depends on local criteria, background information, and interests of parties rather than arbitrary concessions.

Collect background information and technical data.

Early stages of negotiations often produce more questions than answers because of information gaps, making early meetings potentially less productive and more frustrating even if discussions are worthwhile. Thus, it is essential that education becomes part of the negotiation process. In complex coastal scenarios, technical and background information from a variety of disciplines - ecology, oceanography, socio-economics, and/or law, as well as anecdotal and historical information - may be required so that the parties can have a complete and accurate understanding of the issues at hand.

The manager should consider: 1) what types of information and research are needed for groups to understand the issues; 2) where potential sources of information are available; and 3) how information could be incorporated into the process.

Know the alternatives to negotiations.

Negotiations do not solve all issues and disputes, and impasse is sometimes the best outcome to a process. While preparing, managers should consider what alternatives are available outside of the negotiation process and use this perspective to measure all offers and potential agreements. Having a "best alternative to a negotiated agreement" (or BATNA) empowers a party to walk away from unwise agreements and to refrain from arbitrary concessions when other parties use negative negotiation tactics. It may also encourage parties to continue working together on solutions when alternatives to negotiation are not attractive. A manager's BATNA may involve pursuing legal proceedings, coordinating educational and outreach programs, developing incentive programs, organizing media releases, building partnerships, or using other creative approaches to meet the party's primary interests.

For more information:
Kristy Ellenberg, Ellenberg Associates, Inc., 822 Poinsettia Street, Columbia, SC 29205, USA. Tel: +1 803 771 2393; E-mail: ktellenberg [at] earthlink.net

Additional information on training offered by the NOAA Coastal Services Center, including the workshop on negotiations, is available at http://www.csc.noaa.gov.