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Are we missing the boat? The current use of long-term monitoring data in marine protected area management

Long-term biological monitoring data are becoming increasingly available to inform conservation efforts internationally. These data are rich sources of scientific evidence that offer insights into the natural variability of ecosystems and species through time, as well revealing information about the effectiveness of conservation efforts. However, there are many occasions where long-term monitoring data, like other forms of scientific evidence, have been of little use to conservation.

My colleagues and I recently explored how long-term biological monitoring data are used to inform Australian marine protected area (MPA) management. We focussed on long-term monitoring programs from Australian MPAs, as these are some of the world’s longest running monitoring programs, significantly contributing to the scientific understanding of the biological effects of MPA protection. These monitoring programs also represent rich data sources that are available to inform MPA management.

We conducted interviews with MPA managers and scientists from Australian management agencies to document a national perspective of how long-term biological monitoring data are used to inform the evaluation and evidence-based management of Australian MPAs. This research generated a wealth of information is now available in our Journal of Environmental Management paper.

Like terrestrial and marine protected area management agencies around the globe, Australian MPA management agencies commonly use management effectiveness evaluation (MEE) to better understand, learn from and improve conservation efforts. MEE is being used to evaluate management effectiveness of many Australian MPAs, however this process is in its’ infancy with evaluation cycles only having occurred in most cases only a couple of times to date.

The management effectiveness evaluation cycle, designed to enable assessment of the complete management process and facilitate evidence-based management.
The management effectiveness evaluation cycle, designed to enable assessment
of the complete management process and facilitate evidence-based management (adapted from Hockings et al. (2006))

Our research revealed that many long-term biological monitoring programs are used to inform qualitative condition assessments of biological indicators (under the “outcomes” stage of a MEE cycle), where most often published monitoring results are interpreted using expert judgment. That is, available quantitative biological monitoring data are not yet used in any formal quantitative condition assessments for MEE.

We found substantial evidence that long-term monitoring data are informing the evidence-based management of MPAs – contrary to the common criticism that conservation management agencies fail to use scientific evidence to inform management. However, MEE is rarely the only mechanism that facilitates this knowledge transfer to management action.

Our research reveals that in Australian MPAs, the first goal of MEE (to enable environmental accountability and reporting) is being achieved, but the second goal of facilitating evidence-based management is not. “Closing the loop” of MEE to ensure evidence-based management remains a challenge for many management agencies around the globe. We provide recommendations to improve the use of long-term monitoring data in MEE for evidence-based management, such as:

  • Ensuring internal MEE frameworks reflect MEE theory, to determine where breaks in the information chain may be preventing the use of monitoring data in evidence-based management.
  • Implementing quantitative condition assessment of long-term monitoring data to ensure more objective, repeatable and transparent use of monitoring data in MEE.
  • Increase the frequency of evaluation to ensure MEE enables evidence-based management.
  • Invest in targeted long-term monitoring to support outcome assessments.

Will Australia’s new commonwealth marine protected areas work?

The prominent marine scientist, Professor Bob Pressey has recently said what few marine scientists have been brave enough to say about Australia’s new commonwealth marine protected areas (MPAs): they won’t work.

In November 2012, the Australian government established its latest round of commonwealth reserves, upping the area of Australia’s protected marine waters to an impressive 3.1 million sq km.

As of the end of 2012, the NRSMPA now protects an impressive 3.1 million sq km of our marine environment. NRSMPA map: Commonwealth of Australia 2012.
As of the end of 2012, the NRSMPA now protects an impressive 3.1 million sq km of our marine environment. NRSMPA map: Commonwealth of Australia 2012.

So why won’t Australia’s commonwealth MPAs work?

Professor Pressey states clearly that the new commonwealth protected areas are in the wrong places.  In fact, he refers to these as “residual” places which have been chosen as a political move: the declaration of impressively large areas of marine environment which are considered unsuitable for commercial uses (such as fishing and renewable energy generation). As these areas offer little commercial importance, they are essentially easier to allocate to marine conservation as there is the least opposition from industry.

The primary goal for Australia’s MPAs is for marine biodiversity protection. The new commonwealth protected areas have been declared in remote, deep waters where there are few threats to marine biodiversity. Whilst nearshore waters close to our coastline continue to have a variety of human activities which threaten our marine biodiversity.

The simple message here is that there should be more focus on declaring MPAs in nearshore waters where marine biodiversity is actually threatened.