Coastal Management

Stop, collaborate and listen: decision-oriented data collection improves marine conservation

Pendleton, L.; Mongruel, R.; Beaumont, N.; Hooper, T.; Charles, M. A triage approach to improve the relevance of marine ecosystem services assessments. Marine Ecology Progress Series 530: 183-193, 2015. doi: 10.3354/meps11111

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Why we care

An ecosystem service is any aspect of the environment that humans use. It is a widely used term that covers everything from intrinsic value (“Whales have a right to live because they are alive”) to direct consumption (“I like fish because they taste good”). It is easy to see how these services are often inextricably linked with conservation. For example, if you think that whales deserve to live, then you are likely interested in population management because many whale populations are declining. If you enjoy eating fish or use fish as the primary source of protein in your diet, then you may be a supporter of Marine Protected Areas, which are sometimes put in place to combat overfishing.

As you might imagine from this broad definition, scientists measure ecosystem services in a variety of ways. To extend the second example I used above, let’s say you’d like to measure fish abundance in a particular ecosystem. Do you measure total fish weight or total number of individuals? How about the number of species? Do you care about species that might be inadvertently harmed as a result of fishing for target species? These are just some of the questions scientists and managers face when working with just a single service of interest- imagine how complicated things get when you want to know the value of an entire ecosystem!

Despite the number of ecosystem services that are measured and their direct linkage to human interests, an ecosystem services assessment (ESA) is rarely used when making marine management decisions. This paper tackles this problem by creating a procedure to more effectively determine which ecosystem services are most important to a given decision-maker and how to guarantee that science will provide results that are relevant to management efforts.


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The triage approach developed to guide scientists and managers through an effective marine ecosystem services assessment. “Ecosystem services” is abbreviated “ES”.
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The scoring system to be used with stage 2 of the triage process. For example, scientists at the NDBR in the UK used this system to assign recreational bird watching low importance in an ecosystem services assessment; its individual scores in columns 2, 3, and 4 of the table above were low, moderate, and low, respectively. Managers could then focus on other higher scoring ecosystem services (ES), like essential fisheries habitat provision, when designing an ecosystem services assessment that will help them study and protect the reserve’s ES.

The authors developed a triage approach to decision making, so called because it can be used to identify and focus management efforts only on the issues deemed most important. This guide uses a step-wise process to determine the relevance of a marine ESA for a particular management decision, choose which ecosystem service(s) should be quantified in the ESA, and decide how to measure the ecosystem service(s) of interest. The authors go over the triage approach in more detail in their paper, but in the interest of brevity I am providing only a broad outline of the approach here. The flow chart details the most important questions that need to be answered to develop management decisions, while the table showcases the quantitative nature of the prioritization process.

The authors then applied the triage approach to two sites already designated as protected but where resource tradeoffs are increasingly becoming necessary: the North Davon’s Biosphere Reserve (NDBR) in the United Kingdom and the Iroise Marine Natural Park (PNMI) in France.


The triage system promoted transparency in the decision-making process in both case studies. Both scientists and stakeholders were asked to use the triage approach in designing an ESA for the NDBR. Because they used the same step-wise procedure, their results were directly comparable and managers could more easily evaluate the recommendations from each.

This approach also provided decision-makers with a framework they could use to initiate discussion between parties interested in assessment and management of marine resources.

Surprisingly, decision-makers previously lacked a uniform yet flexible approach to evaluating marine ecosystems. In addition, ecosystem services are often studied without regard for how that research will fit into a resource management plan. The triage system described in this paper addresses both of these problems by providing a template that decision-makers can use to guide scientific and conservation priorities. This triage approach will be increasingly useful as humans expand the ways in which we interact with and consume marine resources.

Have your say

What is the marine resource that you use most frequently? Do you know who has a hand in regulating the use of that resource? What other resources does that manager work with? Let me know in the comments!

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