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

AMSA-Conference-Logo-Final_600 pixels

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