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.

Valuing Nature Business Impact School – bringing scientists and businesses together

Recently I had the unique opportunity to attend the Valuing Nature Business Impact School in London. The school brought together early career scientists and business representatives, who share a common interest in valuing nature both for its’ intrinsic environmental value and to understand its’ benefits to business, government and broader society.

The school was run by the Valuing Nature Programme and was held in two contrasting venues: in the heart of London’s business district, and in Windsor Great Park. These settings stimulated some great discussion around how scientists and businesses can work together to effectively value nature, through approaches such as estimating ecosystem services, biodiversity and natural capital. There is a great Storify blog that summarises a lively Twitter discussion during the school.

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The Valuing Nature Business Impact School’s contrasting venues: the heart of London’s business district (the view from Willis Towers Watson building) and Windsor Great Park.

Having recently commenced a NERC knowledge exchange fellowship working with businesses on their corporate biodiversity strategies, the school was a perfect forum for me to learn from other scientists and businesses working in this field. There are so many things I learnt from the Business Impact School, but here are the top four lessons that resonated with me:

1) Why scientists value nature

In his welcoming speech, Michael Winter articulated why scientists should get involved in valuing nature. He summarised the negative response to valuing nature from parts of the scientific and conservation community, who claim that the scientists working in this area have ‘sold out’ to business. But the reality is that businesses and governments are keenly interested in pursuing ways to understand and value nature, and are pushing ahead with this agenda regardless of scientists’ involvement. By acknowledging this reality, scientists have an opportunity to work with business to develop evidence-based, scientifically rigorous approaches to improve the way that nature is valued by businesses. Why should scientists do this? So that we can factor the environment into effective decision-making in the future!

2) Why businesses value nature

As a conservation scientist who has recently begun working with businesses, it’s been a steep learning curve for me to understand what motivates businesses to value nature in the first place. Some interesting perspectives were shared at the school, and with some further reading I feel I’m starting to get my head around these motivations. At the end of the day businesses need to make a profit and a return for their owners/shareholders. So what financial benefits can businesses gain from working with nature? The World Resources Institute outline the financial incentives for businesses to work with nature as:

Operational – investing in environmental initiatives to support more efficient operations.

Regulatory & legal – demonstrating environmental leadership to influence the development of policies & regulations, that could in turn provide ecosystem services that a business relies on.

Reputational – communicate environmental initiatives for differentiation from competitors, and to connect with staff, shareholders, customers and broader society.

Market & product – brand differentiation, by offering eco-labelled products or more sustainable services to reduce environmental impacts.

Financing – gaining access to favorable loan terms from banks who support businesses engaged with positive environmental initiatives.

3) How can scientists work effectively with businesses to value nature?

One thing that struck me during the school is that many scientists are conducting research that could be really beneficial to businesses. But many scientists are yet to connect with specific individuals in businesses to ensure that their science is applied to address business needs. We discussed this briefly at the school, and that a vital initial step is to identify who are the ‘end users’ of your science in order to begin to work with businesses. Often we need to identify the champions within a business, who are passionate about the environment and your science, who can facilitate your research having a real impact in the business world. So how can scientists identify these businesses and individual champions?

Fortunately, Mark Reed and his colleagues have done a lot of research in this area, and have some great tips on the art of knowledge exchange and how to achieve impact in your research. He also has a great online online course available, which guides scientists through designing their research to achieve impact,  identifying the end users of research, and recommending ways to engage with these end users.

4) A top tip for communicating with business

Let’s face it, scientists have a pretty special way of communicating, which is full of technical jargon that often only other scientists can understand. Peter Young, the chair of Valuing Nature’s Business Interest Group, gave a very simple piece of advice for scientists wanting to communicate effectively with business: learn the language of business by looking at their websites. Just mirror their language back to them when explaining your science. Simple!

Thanks Valuing Nature Business Impact School!

I’d like to thank the Valuing Nature Programme for organising the Valuing Nature Business Impact School. This program offered fully funded places to 25 PhD and early career scientists, and was a fantastic learning and networking opportunity for all attendees. This was the first year of the school, and I’m sure there will be many great years of the school to come. For those early career scientists keen to join the next Business Impact School, you should join the Valuing Nature Network!

The National Marine Science Plan – what this means for early career researchers

This week the National Marine Science Plan was launched by the Minister for Industry and Science, Ian Macfarlane. I was lucky enough to MC the launch, and proudly represented the early career research community.

My opportunity to represent the early career researcher community at the launch of the National Marine Science Plan
My opportunity to represent the early career researcher community at the launch of the National Marine Science Plan

The plan represents a shared vision from Australia’s marine science community, emphasising the economic, environmental and social needs of our marine estate. It presents the seven grand challenges that Australia’s marine estate faces over the next decade, and the highest priority science including the skills, relationships and infrastructure needed to tackle these challenges.

The National Marine Science Plan: grand challenges facing Australia’s marine estate over the next decade, and the highest priority science needed to tackle these challenges.
The National Marine Science Plan: grand challenges facing Australia’s marine estate over the next decade, and the highest priority science needed to tackle these challenges.

One of the key recommendations in the plan is to greatly improve marine science research training in Australia. The Plan notes that marine science training is currently limited to narrow fields of research, which limits opportunities for students and early career researchers to develop cross-disciplinary skills. In particular this model does not “facilitate training in a mixture of natural and social sciences, which is increasingly critical for environmental scientists”.

A recommendation made in the Plan is to develop training programs that are more quantitative, cross-disciplinary and linked in with the needs of industry and government. I think this sounds like a great idea!

John Gunn, Emma Johnston and Peter Steinberg have already suggested a few ways that improvements to marine training could be made. One way would be to create a group of marine institutions to offer cross-disciplinary marine science subjects that higher education students from different institutions could choose to study.

The Plan also suggests that “cadetships, internships, industry sponsored postgraduate and postdoctoral scholarships” will be crucial for students and early career researchers to develop the inter-disciplinary skills needed to tackle the current and future challenges facing Australia’s marine estate.

As an early career researcher I look forward to seeing the recommendations from the Plan become a reality over the next decade. The Plan represents a really positive vision for marine science in Australia, which my marine science colleagues and I look forward being part of and aim to carry forward in future decades.

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.

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.