Scaling up Conservation: Replication or Coordination?

July 7, 2014

Oriental Sweetlips (Plectorhinchus vittatus) in Palau. Photo credit: © Dr. Steve Genkins

Replicating successful conservation projects – like churning out Model T’s on an assembly line — is the classic approach to expanding conservation to the regional scale: “if we do it really well here, then everyone will hop on board.” But that approach assumes that others share our aspirations and just need a good model to apply. What if that’s not the case?

The uptake of some new ideas is almost viral. (Cell phones, anyone?) But most innovations, even some that work really well, like electric cars, require a little push toward adoption — such as income tax rebates or gas prices rising above USD4.00/gallon. So far, the evidence suggests that conservation projects rarely have the consumer appeal of i-phones.

Does this mean that large-scale conservation is hopeless? Of course not! In one example — Micronesia — using science to loosen the grip of three thorny riddles has helped transform the challenge of scaling up conservation into a source of pride and connection across the region.

One Illuminating Example

Micronesia (from the Greek words for “small” and “land”) is composed of 2,100 islands spread across an anything-but-tiny 7.4 million square kilometers of the Pacific Ocean. A strong network of local and regional leaders, academic scientists and community stewards cooperate to study, monitor and conserve the region’s key environmental resources.

In 2006, when the President of Palau called his peers to join in a commitment to place at least 30% of near-shore marine and 20% of terrestrial resources under “effective conservation” by 2020, a regional effort called the “Micronesia Challenge” was born.

Some of the individual conservation areas in the five jurisdictions that make up the Micronesia Challenge (Palau, Guam, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia-FSM and the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianna Islands-CNMI) are indeed tiny, measured in tenths of hectares or less. But even very small areas can shelter critical life stages, such as juvenile fish, or support the customary protein supply of a village that has existed for centuries.

Knowing What We Don’t Know

It’s easy to think we know what we need to know. The response of certain fish populations to small-scale management is fairly well-understood (e.g., there are more fish when fewer are caught).   And conservation science is pretty advanced in optimization: mapping out geology, elevation, temperature, currents and where the known plants and animals are; then figuring out where we have the most opportunity — the biggest bang for our conservation buck. (In his recent  “No More Ecology” blog post, Corey Bradshaw explores this logic at its extreme.)

A school of snappers thrive... Photo credit: Trina Leberer/TNC
A school of snappers thrive… Photo credit: Trina Leberer/TNC

There are at least three tough riddles involved in overcoming this “we already know everything” logic.  The way the Micronesia Challenge has gone about solving them offers some insights for other conservation challenges.

First riddle: what if you stop taking fish but there still aren’t more fish?

The response of fish and other conservation indicators is judged by monitoring – measuring the same thing in the same way over time. Monitoring may seem boring, but it alerts managers to unexpected outcomes and triggers changes in strategy. The pulsing global systems that are the setting for conservation gems have many variables beyond biology and environment: politics, culture, economics and history all play a role in whether conservation does what we think it will. This combination of factors may be so complex and variable that it defies prediction.

In these cases, monitoring has to be nimble — alerting decision-makers to unexpected results and capturing new information as needed. For example, when the fish population in a part of Pohnpei-FSM didn’t rebound as expected, researchers monitored clusters of breeding fish that are the traditional focus of fishers. It turned out the boundaries of the conservation area had to be expanded.

When the fish population continued to decline, researchers monitoring law enforcement and the marketplace concluded that it was simply impossible to effectively enforce rules on the water. Evidence suggested that single source enforcement at the market might have a higher chance of success. What started as a small marine conservation area turned into a statewide ban on the sale of fish that were too small. Monitoring of the fish population response to this ban continues.

Second riddle: if not everyone loves graphs and numbers, how do you make them care enough to change?

Even in cases where conservation scientists get the response that we expect, conventional formats for science communications, such as technical reports and PowerPoint presentation have a well-known snooze factor for most audiences. In fact, the Cultural Cognition project tells us that that assembling such evidence has absolutely no effect on what people believe. Worse, impenetrable graphs and numbers can bias people more toward believing what they are already comfortable with.

The cycle of academic science (the slow pace of peer-reviewed publication compared to the need for information to inform decision-making, as well as the typical three-year grant cycle) offer little incentive to invest in culturally appropriate communications.

Within the Micronesia Challenge, it was quickly recognized that academic scientists were not always the best conservation messengers. And the more appropriate messenger varied across the Micronesia Challenge. In some places, it was a civic club, such as the Rotary in CNMI; churches and traditional leaders for different parts of Pohnpei; formal governmental leaders in Palau; and traditional chiefs and informal champions in Yap-FSM.

They were all enlisted to carry the data from monitoring to constituents in a culturally appropriate manner; locally nuanced messages for conservation work at a large scale.

Third riddle: even where we think that we have site-specific responses worked out and can get people to pay attention, how do we spread the enthusiasm for using monitoring data to make decisions across the expanse of the Micronesia Challenge?

The answer is thoughtful science and lots and lots of team building. Large land- and sea-scape conservation is defined many ways, but interagency collaboration and diverse stakeholder perspectives are the common threads.

The Micronesia Challenge spawned a series of working groups that have met over the course of three or four years to foster agreement on what overarching achievements are important to all these diverse interests, like coral reef health and sustainable fisheries – as well as a commitment to monitor these shared goals via common indicators.

In addition, academic scientists have come together to test the statistical rigor of the new, scaled up monitoring design. This means that data collected across the Micronesia Challenge can actually be generalized and used at the new scale of the conservation work.

The answers to these riddles are beginning to unknot the challenge of making large-scale conservation work real-time.  It’s not the obvious “innovation” of technological solutions or financial instruments. But the combination of ideas — some practical, some technical and some simply acknowledging  how humans really like to communicate — is spreading infectiously, almost like cell phones.

The innovation is a recognition that the riddles can’t be worked out in isolation.  The uptake of these new ideas depends on the patience and commitment to apply conservation science to complex and very real problems and at a large scale.

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