VIEWPOINT: Are we gathering the right data (or how to stop searching for more when the answers are right in front of us)

Posted on 08 February 2013  | 
  • We will never have perfect knowledge to manage marine resources → calls for relying on precautionary approach
  • Dealing with lack of data requires basing decisions on the best available science, and taking into account gaps in our understanding to make decisions.
  • Lack of good data has been used as an excuse for non-intervention, even when there is an obvious problem, or to support detrimental solutions.
  • So we need to consider another approach -- focusing on monitoring people’s activities instead, which are more practical to be acted upon by decision-makers. Some ideas are presented on how to do this.

We will never have perfect knowledge to optimally manage the marine resources that we are exploiting for our needs. This is not unique to the marine environment, but challenges are high due to the complexity of marine ecosystems and the difficulties of working in this type of environment. It also does not help that it’s hard to look deep beneath the water surface. Moreover, as my conservation science colleagues tell me, there appear to be fewer resources devoted to marine research, compared with other ecosystems.

Given this, the precautionary approach should be central to our work. In fact, this approach has been incorporated into most UN biodiversity-related processes, including Rio, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and the Code of Conduct on Responsible Fisheries, to name some very significant to the marine realm.
While the way this principle is reflected varies in these and other forums, the approach generally encompasses two key elements:
  • the need to base any decisions on the best available science; and
  • the need to take into account the gaps in our understanding as we make decisions.

When absence of good data leads to the wrong decisions—or none

Over the past decade, unfortunately, I have experienced cases where lack of good data or the disagreement on the best method to use, were used as excuses not to act upon clear signs of locally declining fish stocks and deteriorating marine ecosystem health. I also experienced cases where the same argument—lack of proper data—was used to in fact support decisions that generated short-term benefits for a selected group of people or investors.

So it appears to me that both key elements can be interpreted to support either action or inaction regardless of their outcomes for the sustainability of the resource, and yet allow decision makers to make excuses that they applied the precautionary approach. This is not very useful to many of us working to sustain the health of the marine environment, support food security and livelihoods, or biodiversity.

If marine science and data gathering are to provide arguments for decision-makers on the objectives of sustainable use, then these should target fields where such data directly guide management decisions, and within the area that the respective decision maker can affect.

Shifting our focus on monitoring people’s activities

Having a good idea about the state of the ecosystem and drivers that change that state is essential for predicting the probable effects of interventions that the decision maker can deploy. But from my experience, information on an ecosystem’s condition is not sufficiently linked directly to patterns in human action that impact that ecosystem’s condition.

As most people today agree that management of natural resources is mostly management of people’s activities, I challenge the focus of data collection of ecosystem conditions and instead propose that we shift focus to monitoring people’s activities.

It is certainly helpful for decision-makers to see for themselves what is happening below the surface of the water. However, they don't need to have a solid understanding of coral reef ecology to understand how destructive practices such as bomb fishing wreak havoc. In fact, those human practices are already prohibited by law, so one should not have to come up repeatedly with explanations and illustrations of what it does to a coral reef.

There are more such “no-brainers” that many of us know about. And many of these boil down to very basic “truths”, several of which we apply in our everyday life at home. When you have used the last bit of sugar, you have to make an effort to go buy some more in the store. Or for urgent sugar cravings, go across to your neighbor with a cup, hoping your last noisy party did not upset him too much and your relation is solid enough for borrowing sugar. When you shuffle around your new tomato plants without much attention, you will cut their roots and have no tomatoes at harvest time. If you are saving for a pension after you retire, you will probably keep track of your monthly bank statements and keep an eye on your average spending, and even write some of it down. So why can’t we seem to act upon some of these similar “truths” when we exploit the oceans resources?

How to approach ‘people monitoring’

If I would monitor and collect data on anything, I would monitor human behaviors that pose an immediate danger to the health of the ecosystem and using disturbing observations to underpin discussion of those simple “truths”. Focusing limited resources to monitor changes in direct threats to the ecosystem makes good sense in the short term, especially when decision makers have limited control of the governance over the full structure and functioning of the ecosystem. But I should also be careful not to propose expensive methods.

New technology for data collection and analysis is available through remote sensing, on-vessel automated data loggers, and even mobile phones used by fishers to upload observations straight into a database for analysis. These exciting developments show great promise in reducing time to help governments and communities to act and make decisions. There is also important progress on the “packaging” of information suitable to the needs of different decision-maker such as:
  • Translating material (e.g. from national language to local or indigenous language and vise versa);
  • Making materials easy to understand, by removing unnecessary scientific jargon; and
  • Organizing and focusing information to match questions in front of the decision-maker.

Staying realistic

There will remain gaps, uncertainties, and errors in our information and understanding, so the precautionary approach continues to be critical. As monitoring would shift to identify and track unsustainable activities, to stay “on the safe side”, we should be stronger in promoting interventions that make it easier to manage human activities.

There are two important roles that fully protected reserves can play in this context:
  • They can provide a baseline, against which effects of management around the reserve can be measured; and
  • They provide a buffer against mistakes or non-compliance with management aroudn the reserves.
There is still a need to know who is using the ecosystem outside of the reserves. Registration and licensing cannot be exempted for any resource user, regardless how small scale they are or how limited their utilization of the resources.

Gathering sound ecosystem data is an expensive and time-intensive process that requires solid skills if we are to have accurate data. Can we afford to keep on minutely documenting environmental degradation while the human actions that are causing this trend are staring us in the face, and too often are going unaddressed?
Lida Pet-Soede
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