What needs to change to undertake quantitative assessment of biodiversity outcomes in protected areas

I am very happy to announce the final paper from my PhD has now been published!

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Here is a brief outline of the paper:

Protected area management effectiveness (PAME) evaluation is increasingly undertaken to evaluate governance, assess conservation outcomes and inform evidence-based management of protected areas (PAs). Within PAME, quantitative approaches to assess biodiversity outcomes are now emerging, where biological monitoring data are directly assessed against quantitative (numerically defined) condition categories (termed quantitative condition assessments). However, more commonly qualitative condition assessments are employed in PAME, which use descriptive condition categories and are evaluated largely with expert judgement that can be subject to a range of biases, such as linguistic uncertainty and overconfidence.

Despite the benefits of increased transparency and repeatability of evaluations, quantitative condition assessments are rarely used in PAME. To understand why, we interviewed practitioners from all Australian marine protected area (MPA) networks, which have access to long-term biological monitoring data and are developing or conducting PAME evaluations.

Our research revealed that there is a desire within management agencies to implement quantitative condition assessment of biodiversity outcomes in Australian MPAs. However, practitioners report many challenges in transitioning from undertaking qualitative to quantitative condition assessments of biodiversity outcomes, which are hampering progress. Challenges include a lack of agency capacity (staff numbers and money), knowledge gaps, and diminishing public and political support for PAs. We point to opportunities to target strategies that will assist agencies overcome these challenges, including new decision support tools, approaches to better finance conservation efforts, and to promote more management relevant science.

Please follow this open access link to access this paper: authors.elsevier.com/a/1Uyhw14Z6tTFRO

If you’d like to see some of my other PhD research, please click the links below:

Addison P.F.E., Flander L.B., Cook C.N. (2017) Towards quantitative condition assessment of biodiversity outcomes: insights from Australian marine protected areas. Journal of Environmental Management. 198, 183–191.

Addison, P.F.E., Flander, L. B., Cook, C.N. (2015) Are we missing the boat? Current uses of long-term biological monitoring data in the evaluation and management of marine protected areas. Journal of Environmental Management. 149, 148–156.

Addison, P.F.E, de Bie, K., Rumpff, L. (2015) Setting conservation management thresholds using a novel participatory modelling approach. Conservation Biology, 29, 1411–1422.

Addison, P. F. E., Rumpff, L., Bau, S. S., Carey, J. M., Chee, Y. E., Jarrad, F., McBride, M. F., and Burgman, M. A. (2013). Practical solutions for making models indispensable in conservation decision-making. Diversity and Distributions. Special issue on: Perspectives and tools for conservation risk analysis.  19, 490–502.

New insights from conservation practitioners on decision triggers for evidence-based management of natural systems

Many conservation organisations are striving to undertake evidence-based management to help guide effective management of natural systems. This is where the best available evidence, like ecological research or monitoring data, are used to support management decisions. An important feature of evidence-based management is that it can assist conservation practitioners in making often difficult decisions about when to intervene in a system to prevent undesirable changes.

Decision triggers represent a point or zone in the status of a monitored variable indicating when management intervention is required to address undesirable ecosystem changes (Figure 1).

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Figure 1: Decision triggers (horizontal dashed lines) representing a target for management intervention.

Decision triggers have received increasing attention from the scientific community, who have suggested that they facilitate more proactive and transparent management of ecosystems (see our paper in Biological Conservation for these academic perspectives). From a management perspective, decision triggers offer conservation practitioners greater clarity about when and where to intervene in a system. However, there has been little consideration of whether practitioners in management organisations support the adoption of, or even use of decision triggers in practice.

In our recent paper in the Journal of Applied Ecology, we share the perspectives of conservation practitioners from protected area management organisations in Australia and New Zealand, on the progress towards using of decision triggers for protected area management.

It turns out that there are a wide range of organisational motivations for developing and using decision triggers, which go well beyond the desire to prevent negative conservation outcomes (Figure 2). Other important motivations for developing and using decision triggers include: supporting decision-making by providing clarity about when and how to act, improving transparency of organizational decisions, removing the need for guess work, and guarding against the paralysing effects of uncertainty.

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Figure 2: The motivations for organisations developing and using decision triggers, ordered from most to least frequently cited by the Australian and New Zealand organisations.

Support for a decision triggers approach has manifested as ad hoc examples, but only for well-understood threats or controversial management issues. For example, to manage significant threats to biodiversity (e.g., fire or invasive species management), setting quotas for harvesting or controlling native species, and determining when to remove threatened populations from the wild.

The practitioners in our study shared their views on the operational barriers (issues within the organisations) and scientific knowledge gaps (lack of knowledge or techniques) impeding the development and implementation of decision triggers. Practitioners revealed that most organisations are facing similar challenges (e.g., insufficient resources and the lack of a process and methods for developing decision triggers across different contexts), which is hampering the routine use of decision triggers. Gaps in our scientific understanding were also seen as a major issue impeding the adoption of decision trigger (e.g., uncertainties around ecological processes, and a lack of targeted, robust and reliable baseline monitoring data).

Practitioners are keen to adopt decision triggers as part of routine management for a range of threats, species and ecosystems. However, integrating decision triggers into day-to-day management requires methods that can be widely applied. Practitioners were very clear that they would appreciate support from the academic community to overcome the barriers they face.

Practitioners are calling for an overarching process and supporting methods to develop decision triggers. A key recommendation from our study is that guidance on how to develop decision triggers is required. An essential element of any guidance will be flexibility, such that decision triggers can be developed for different management contexts, rather than prescribing a one-size-fits-all approach. In fact, we believe that many critical steps needed for developing decision triggers already exist in most evidence-based management frameworks already used by conservation organisations. You can read about our full set of recommendations here.

Achieving the potential of decision triggers to support evidence-based conservation will require collaboration between conservation practitioners and scientists to demonstrate a flexible approach that can be applied within existing evidence-based management frameworks across different management contexts.

We are currently developing detailed guidance to provide practitioners with a clear understanding of how to integrate decision triggers within their organisations’ frameworks. This approach will be tested through a series of case studies to illustrate how decision triggers can be applied to managing species, ecosystems and threatening processes. If you would like to find out more about our upcoming research, please contact Carly Cook.

This blog post was written by Prue Addison, Kelly de Bie, and Carly Cook.

When to act? A new approach to set conservation management thresholds

Management thresholds are a useful tool to inform decision-makers when management intervention is required to address undesirable environmental changes. These tools have had widespread application in natural resource management like fisheries and water quality management, but less so in conservation.

My colleagues, Kelly de Bie and Libby Rumpff, and I found ourselves in need of an approach to develop conservation management thresholds for the following situation, where management thresholds: (1) must be set for environmental indicators in the face of multiple competing objectives; (2) need to incorporate scientific understanding and value judgments; and, (3) involve participants in the process with limited modelling experience. As no approaches existed to address our situation, we devised a new participatory modelling approach for setting management thresholds.

The approach that we devised follows the steps of structured decision-making, which is very useful in supporting multi-objective conservation decision-making. Structured decision-making also enables the incorporation of scientific knowledge and value judgments into decision-making, and promotes the involvement of decision makers, stakeholders, and experts (collectively participants) in the decision-making process. Our approach draws on a unique combination of modelling techniques within each step of structured decision-making, which have not been used to set conservation management thresholds to date (Figure 1).

The steps of the participatory modelling process and recommended techniques to set management thresholds.
Figure 1. The steps of the participatory modelling process and recommended techniques to set management thresholds.

In our recent Conservation Biology paper, we describe this participatory modelling approach to set management thresholds, and illustrate its application using a case study where management thresholds were set for a mat-forming brown alga, Hormosira banksii (Figure 2), in an Australian marine protected area.

Figure 2. A rocky intertidal reef in Victoria, Australia, with a close up of the brown alga, Hormosira banksii.
Figure 2. A rocky intertidal reef in Victoria, Australia, with a close up of the brown alga, Hormosira banksii.

Participants, including management staff and scientists, were involved in a workshop to test the approach, and set management thresholds to address the threat of trampling by visitors to an intertidal rocky reef. The approach involved trading off the environmental objective, to maintain the condition of intertidal reef communities, with social and economic objectives to ensure management intervention did not ruin visitor experience and was cost-effective.

Ecological scenarios, developed using scenario planning, were a key feature of this approach that provided the foundation for where to set management thresholds. The four scenarios developed represented the current condition, and plausible declines in percent cover of H. banksii that may occur under increased threatening processes in the future (Figure 3).

The ecological scenarios developed using scenario planning, representing the current condition (70% cover), and plausible declines in percent cover of H. banksii (42%, 30% and 15% cover) that may occur under increased threatening processes in the future. Monitoring data showing the current condition of H. banksii (solid black line: mean percentage cover [SE]) at the intertidal reef is also displayed.
Figure 3. The ecological scenarios developed using scenario planning, representing the current condition (70% cover), and plausible declines in percent cover of Hormosira (42%, 30% and 15% cover) that may occur under increased threatening processes in the future. Monitoring data showing the current condition of Hormosira (solid black line: mean percentage cover [SE]) at the intertidal reef is also displayed.
Participants defined four discrete management alternatives to address the threat of trampling and estimated the consequence of these alternatives on the objectives under each ecological scenario. A weighted additive model was used to aggregate participants’ consequence estimates. Model outputs (decision scores) clearly expressed uncertainty (Figure 4), which can be considered by decision- makers and used to inform where to set management thresholds (Figure 5).

Figure 4. The performance of the 4 management alternatives under the ecological scenarios representing the current condition (70% cover) and 3 plausible states of reduced cover of Hormosira (42%, 30%, and 15% cover).
Figure 4. The performance of the 4 management alternatives under the ecological scenarios representing the current condition (70% cover) and 3 plausible states of reduced cover of Hormosira (42%, 30%, and 15% cover).

Figure 5. The medium protection management threshold implementation range (amber shading) for Hormosira informed by decision scores in Figure 3. The current condition of Hormosira (solid black line: mean percentage cover [SE]) at the intertidal reef is shown from 2004 to 2013, and the ecological scenarios are represented by the four horizontal lines (as presented in Figure 2).
Figure 4. The medium protection management threshold implementation range (amber shading) for Hormosira informed by decision scores in Figure 3. The current condition of Hormosira (solid black line: mean percentage cover [SE]) at the intertidal reef is shown from 2004 to 2013, and the ecological scenarios are represented by the four horizontal lines (as presented in Figure 2).
Why set conservation management thresholds?

Setting management thresholds remains a challenging task in conservation. We believe this novel participatory modelling approach provides an accessible and effective method to set conservation management thresholds.

One single approach to setting management thresholds will not be suitable for all contexts, as conservation decisions often involve different circumstances that will require different modelling approaches. We propose this participatory modelling approach as one in a toolbox of available approaches to assist with setting management thresholds.

Most importantly this participatory modelling approach encourages a proactive form of conservation management, where management thresholds and associated management actions are defined a priori for ecological indictors, rather than reacting to unexpected future ecosystem changes.

Want to find out more about this research?

Please feel free to download our open access Conservation Biology paper.

For those attending the International Congress for Conservation Biology in Marseille, France, please come along to my presentation in the Adaptive Management and Monitoring session on Tuesday 4th of August, 8.30-10.00, room Sully 1.

Monitoring, evaluation and reporting symposium at the AMSA conference

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I’m pleased to announce that the monitoring, evaluation and reporting symposium will be running at the Australian Marine Sciences Association conference in July this year.

This symposium is shaping up to be a great forum to share innovative ideas to progress current approaches to monitoring, evaluation and reporting on the health of the marine environment.

Abigail McQuatters-Gollop will be giving an keynote presentation on lessons learnt from the implementation of the latest marine conservation initiative in the European Union – the Marine Strategy Framework Directive. We also have a range of presentations that have been proposed by Australian marine scientists from government agencies, universities and NGOs.

We are now seeking presenters to submit abstracts in order to share their research, management approaches, or innovative ideas for monitoring, evaluation and reporting of the marine environment. We welcome abstracts for either oral presentations or presentation electronic posters (PEPs) to contribute to this symposium. Abstracts are due on Friday 17th April. Please submit your abstract here: http://www.amsaconference.net/presentations/abstracts/.

We ask that presenters focus on sharing current, new or upcoming ideas that are changing MER in the marine environment to support clear and defensible evidence-based management. Please feel free to contact myself, David Collins or Steffan Howe (contact details below) if you’d like to discuss a potential contribution to this symposium.

Below is an outline of the symposium for your information. I look forward to seeing your abstracts roll in through the online system soon!

Symposium S3 “Monitoring, evaluation and reporting on the health of Australia’s marine environment: innovative ideas to progress current approaches”

Symposium overview: Many organisations have the same aim for, but different approaches to, monitoring, evaluation and reporting on Australia’s marine environment. Many organisations also continue to grapple with scientific issues relating to monitoring and evaluating the marine environment and reporting to different audiences. With increasing pressure for organisations to report on the effectiveness of environmental programs and contribute to state-wide and national environmental assessments, it is vital that marine practitioners share their innovative research and ideas in order to progress a national approach to monitoring, evaluation and reporting.

This symposium will provide a national forum to share innovative research that can help progress approaches to monitoring, evaluation and reporting of marine environmental programs. We welcome presentation and e-poster proposals relating to monitoring (e.g., advances in marine monitoring, and indicator development), evaluation (e.g., developing data standards for online databases, setting condition categories, and decision thresholds), and reporting (e.g., advances in report cards, improvements in information accessibly and novel communication strategies for public engagement).

This symposium will involve presentations and a facilitated group discussion to share innovative ideas and develop avenues for future collaboration. The outcomes of the symposium will be published in the AMSA bulletin, and a manuscript on innovations in monitoring, evaluation and reporting on the marine environment.

This symposium builds on sessions from previous AMSA conferences, which have dealt separately with monitoring, evaluation or reporting on the health of the marine environment. This symposium will be the first at an AMSA conference to bring all three interconnected elements together.

Conveynors: Prue Addison (Australian Institute of Marine Science, prue.addison@gmail.com), David Collins (Environment Protection Authority Victoria, David.Collins@epa.vic.gov.au) and Steffan Howe (Parks Victoria, steffan.howe@parks.vic.gov.au).

Please see the AMSA conference website for full details about all of the themes and symposia planned for the AMSA conference.

Victorians show their passion for marine science

Over 200 members of the general public attended the sold out event “Showcasing Victoria’s Marine Science” at Museum Victoria last week. This event aimed to showcase some of the most cutting edge research being conducted by Victorian marine scientists, and was hosted by the Australian Marine Sciences Association Victoria branch and Museum Victoria.

Showcasing Victoria’s Marine Science event logo. Featuring underwater image by Dr Julian Finn, Museum Victoria.

We handpicked six marine scientists to share their diverse and inspiring research stories with the general public. Here are stories from three of our presenters:

Dr Peter Macreadie, from the University of Technology Sydney, shared his bright ideas for blue carbon: “Reducing carbon emissions is an important approach to tackling climate change, but too frequently we forget that we have another weapon up our sleeves: ‘biosequestration’, which is the natural process of using plants, trees, and soils to capture and store carbon. We have recently discovered that coastal vegetated habitats – seagrasses, saltmarshes and mangroves – are among the most powerful carbon sink on the planet. They can bury carbon at a rate 40-times faster than forests and have the ability to keep buried carbon locked away for millennial time scales”.

Dr Macreadie is working with scientists at Deakin University and their research has shown that human-induced changes in the coastal zone has caused a 100-fold weakening in the ability of coastal sediments to store carbon and thereby help mitigate climate change. It’s not all bad news though, Peter says that “Australia’s land is girt by sea and abounds in blue carbon sinks, which puts us in a prime position to capitalise on nature’s ability to help reset our planet’s thermostat”.

Dr Alecia Bellgrove, from Deakin University in Warnambool, shared her research on seaweed superfoods: “Seaweed production via aquaculture has doubled in the past 10 years and now accounts for a total annual harvest of 23.8 million tonnes valued at over US$6 billion globally.  There is currently no commercial aquaculture of Australian seaweeds, however we are receiving increasing interest from international importers for sources of high quality Australian Made seaweeds that are perceived as clean and pure, particularly in Asian markets”.

Dr Bellgrove believes that the opportunity for a new, sustainable and vibrant Australian seaweed industry is dawning. Her research group have begun to explore the unique Australian marine flora for potential new edible seaweed products for both domestic and international markets.  Their palatability tests and preliminary nutritional analyses suggest that Aussie seaweeds fair really well against existing commercial products.

Dr Kate Charlton-Robb, from the Australian Marine Mammal Conservation Foundation, shared her dolphin discovery research: “In a time when we are losing species at an alarming rate, it is a rare event to discover a new species, let alone a dolphin that has been living right under our noses. The Burrunan dolphin, Tursiops australis, was formally described and named in 2011, and has two of the only known resident populations here in Victoria”.

Dr Charlton-Robb explained the bitter-sweet experience of the excitement of discovering the Burrunan dolphin, whilst officially listing this dolphin as threatened. “With an effective population size of less than 100 dolphins in each of the Port Phillip Bay and Gippsland Lakes resident populations, there is considerable concerns around the conservation of this species” Kate said. Kate’s research team are currently conducting applied research to further protect the Burrunan dolphin, by incorporating population and distribution assessments, conservation genetics and identifying areas of significance for this iconic species.

Our other three speakers shared their diverse and inspiring research stories with the general public: Tim Allen shared his perspective on the immense value of scientific research in Victorian marine conservation efforts; Dr Tim O’Hara inspired the audience about the amazing advances in deep sea biodiversity research at Museum Victoria; and, Associate Professor Jan Strugnell shared her southern ocean research that has revealed how dramatic ocean events of the past have left their legacy in the genes of an Antarctic octopus.

Our evening of marine science presentations: Dr Mark Norman (introducing our speakers), Dr Tim O'Hara, Dr Kate Charlton-Robb, and Associate Professor Jan Strugnell. Image credits: Vera Gin (Museum Victoria) and Allyson O'Brien (AMSA Victoria)
Our evening of marine science presentations: Dr Mark Norman (introducing our speakers), Dr Tim O’Hara, Dr Kate Charlton-Robb, Tim Allen, and Associate Professor Jan Strugnell. Image credits: Vera Gin (Museum Victoria) and Allyson O’Brien (AMSA Victoria).

This event has shown that Victorian marine scientists are producing high impact scientific knowledge with great environmental and economic value, and the public interest shown in this event is testament to its enormous social value.

Given the great success of this public event, AMSA Victoria are already planning another public event that will coincide with the national AMSA conference in Geelong this July. On Monday July 6th 2015, we will be hosting a Q&A style public event, where we will joined by a panel of leading Australian marine scientists who will discuss some of Australia’s major marine issues, and answer questions posed by the audience. From super trawlers to marine parks, it promises to be an evening of lively debate. So start thinking of some curly questions and keep an eye on our conference events webpage for more details.

Prue Addison, president of the Victorian branch of the Australian Marine Sciences Association

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.