Resolving critical and irreducible uncertainties inherent in managed social-ecological systems requires experimentation with management policies at whole-system levels to learn about the actual effects of interventions. Thus, active adaptive management is essential for robust ecological knowledge—and we show that collaborative active adaptive management can be a powerful tool to enhance ecological literacy and build capacity among stakeholders to move towards environmental sustainability. We experimentally involved members of N = 17 randomly selected German angling clubs engaged in self-governance of fisheries resources in an ecological experiment of the common, popular, but ecologically controversial and potentially economically wasteful fisheries management practice of fish stocking. Using a robust before-after-control-impact design we assessed changes in stakeholder’s eco-evolutionary knowledge, environmental beliefs, and behavioral intentions towards stocking. We compared stakeholders in the adaptive management treatment group to those receiving only a standard scientific lecture (the most common form of active science communication) on sustainable stocking, and compared both to a baseline control group receiving a placebo lecture on general piscivorous fish management. The active adaptive management treatment group was intensively involved in collaborative experiments that spanned five years and manipulated fish stocking densities with two species in 22 lakes.
The stakeholders that participated in the active adaptive management program collaborated with scientists and produced results in their own club waters that demonstrated conditions when stocking can and cannot have additive fishery effects. These stakeholders retained increased knowledge of four times as many stocking-related ecological topics after a period of eight months compared to the standard lecture (changes in both groups were assessed compared to the baseline placebo control group). Involvement in adaptive management was also the only treatment that altered functional ecological understanding, and caused stakeholders to alter their behavioral intentions to decrease their reliance on fish stocking in the future. Widely called a practical necessity, we show that well-conducted collaborative co-production of knowledge in an adaptive management framework is a powerful tool to enhance ecological literacy and build capacity among stakeholders to move towards environmental sustainability, and has superior and lasting effects compared to standard lecture-based science communication. The benefits of adaptive management thus extend far beyond scientific understanding and promise to help steer social-ecological systems towards sustainable, self-organized trajectories.