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.

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.

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.

Making decisions for real: How Structured Decision Making can help

I have been involved with researchers from the University of Melbourne in applying decision theory to a range of protected area management issues faced by Parks Victoria (the managers of Victoria’s terrestrial and marine Protected Areas). In particular we use structured decision making (SDM) to guide managers through a decision process. We believe SDM offers a platform to make more robust, transparent and defensible conservation decisions.

Read about how Structured Decision Making is helping Parks Victoria work though current management issues of it’s Protected Areas
Read about how Structured Decision Making is helping Parks Victoria work though current management issues of it’s Protected Areas

As a part of my PhD research I have applied the principles of SDM and scenario planning to help Parks Victoria explore where to set management thresholds for biological indicators within Victoria’s Marine National Parks. My research is ongoing, but you can read more about it and our other SDM research projects in Decision Point.

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.