Laurence McCook: Good, adaptive ecosystem-based management can lead to good environmental and economic outcomes

Dr Laurence McCook

Science-based Management Applications
Pew Fellow in Marine Conservation
Manager, Ecosystem Health and Resilience,
Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority

August 2011

The need for urgent action to protect coral reefs is now beyond question, at least within the scientific community. A key aspect of success in conservation lies in our ability to get better as we go, and learn from our mistakes and our successes- that is to adaptively manage.  As we increase efforts, we need to ensure that we continually improve our effectiveness in slowing the global decline in reefs. This means accepting that we won’t get it right first time every time, and that we need to build on successful strategies and improve on unsuccessful ones. The scientific literature includes many critiques of marine conservation problems and mistakes, especially the literature on marine protected areas, but there’s a tendency to see the glass as half empty and throw up our hands. It’s really important to see the successes as well, the glass half full perspective, and to move onwards and upwards.

Around Australia, and internationally, efforts to improve the management of marine biodiversity are being hindered by perceptions that such efforts will have negative impacts on local communities, especially fishers. But available evidence suggests that well managed ecosystems can have far greater long-term economic and social benefits than over-exploited and unprotected systems.

The Great Barrier Reef provides a globally significant demonstration of the successes that can be achieved through carefully planned and implemented networks of marine reserves and ecosystem-based management.

In a recent paper, we reviewed the available evidence on the effects of the network of marine reserves on the Great Barrier Reef, a network which set the bar for spatial management in marine ecosystems. Key conclusions include:

  1. “Overall, zoning of the GBR marine reserve network appears to be making major contributions to the protection of biodiversity, ecosystem resilience and social and economic values of the GBR Marine Park.” Importantly, there are likely benefits for fisheries, as well as biodiversity conservation.
  2. “The breadth and extent of benefits reflect very well on the scientific and engagement processes involved in the development and implementation of the 2004 Zoning Plan, especially the value of larger reserve size and high proportion of overall area in reserves to provide margins of error.”
  3. “Given the major threat posed by climate change, the expanded network of marine reserves provides a critical and cost-effective contribution to enhancing the resilience of the Great Barrier Reef.”
  • A key new result is the demonstration that protected zones suffer less damage to corals from crown-of-thorns starfish. This is especially important since corals provide the very foundation of the reef, and are critical to the tourism industry. 
  • The paper shows significant benefits for fish populations within reserves, and probably for GBR-wide fish populations. There are benefits to sharks, dugong and turtles, although these groups remain at serious risk, and require complementary protection measures.
  • Although there have been some effects on fishers, these have been less than suggested in some media, there appear to have been some benefits, and there remains strong support amongst fishers for the need to protect biodiversity. Economic effects have been the focus of a structural adjustment program by the Australian Government.
  • A healthy GBR generates enormous economic value, approximately $5.5 billion per year, which is far greater than the cost of protecting it. 

Emerging evidence suggests that the Great Barrier Reef is suffering long-term declines. In that context, it is even more important that we recognize our wins, as well as our losses.

Read more…

Journal article:

McCook LJ, Ayling T, Cappo M, Choat JH, Evans RD, Freitas DM De, Heupel M, Hughes TP, Jones GP, Mapstone B, Marsh H, Mills M, Molloy F, Pitcher CR, Pressey RL, Russ GR, Sutton S, Sweatman H, Tobin R,Wachenfeld DR, Williamson DH (2010) Adaptive management of the Great Barrier Reef: a globally significant demonstration of the benefits of networks of marine reserves. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 107: 18278-18285.

ABSTRACT: The Great Barrier Reef provides a globally significant demonstration of the effectiveness of large-scale networks of marine reserves in contributing to integrated, adaptive management. Comprehensive review of available evidence shows major, rapid benefits of no-take areas for targeted fish and sharks, in both reef and non-reef habitats, with potential benefits for fisheries as well as biodiversity conservation. Large, mobile species like sharks benefit less than smaller, site-attached fish. Critically, reserves also appear to benefit overall ecosystem health and resilience: outbreaks of coral-eating, crown-of-thorns starfish appear less frequent on no-take reefs, which consequently have higher abundance of coral, the very foundation of reef ecosystems. Effective marine reserves require regular review of compliance: fish abundances in no-entry zones suggest that even no-take zones may be significantly depleted due to poaching. Spatial analyses comparing zoning with seabed biodiversity or dugong distributions illustrate significant benefits from application of best-practice conservation principles in data-poor situations. Increases in the marine reserve network in 2004 affected fishers, but preliminary economic analysis suggests considerable net benefits, in terms of protecting environmental and tourism values. Relative to the revenue generated by reef tourism, current expenditure on protection is minor. Recent implementation of an Outlook Report provides regular, formal review of environmental condition and management, and links to policy responses, key aspects of adaptive management. Given the major threat posed by climate change, the expanded network of marine reserves provides a critical and cost-effective contribution to enhancing the resilience of the Great Barrier Reef.

Other recent articles:

Gunn J, Fraser G, Kimball B (2010) Review of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Structural Adjustment Package. Report prepared for the Department of Environment, Heritage and the Arts.

Macintosh A, Bonyhady T, Wilkinson D (2010) Dealing with interests displaced by marine protected areas: A case study on the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Structural Adjustment Package. Ocean and Coastal Management 53: 581-588.