When it comes to developing management tools, how do we keep up with constantly changing ecosystems? Associate Editor, Annabel Smith explains the important step forward made by Welch et al’s research into dynamic management tools.

Scientists have been very good at developing guidelines for management of natural systems. Streams of conceptual frameworks are published every year, to the point that we now have frameworks for choosing among the sea of frameworks and for integrating management frameworks from across disciplines. Some of my government colleagues who work in policy and management roles have told me that clear, conceptual decision-support tools help them make sure that different ecological processes are considered in conservation decision making. So, these frameworks are useful and necessary, particularly because decision makers often work on tight time frames and might not have access to (or the need for) complex analytical tools.

But what’s happening outside, while all these guidelines are being developed in our meeting rooms? Fish are migrating, birds are range-shifting, invasive species are invading, fires are burning, temperature records are being broken and, by the time we’ve finished talking, the biological composition and physical properties of the ecosystem we were talking about might have changed drastically. The rate of ecological change is increasing with climate change, and frameworks that provide static management guidance might only be relevant in passing. So how can we deal with this constantly changing aspect of ecosystems?

Dynamic management tools

A new article by Heather Welch (NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center, USA), recently published in Journal of Applied Ecology, highlights the important role of dynamic management for highly variable ecosystems. The team’s focus in on the biological, environmental, economic and social changes at fine spatial and temporal scales – processes occurring within a few hundred km and systems which change daily, monthly or yearly. Examples include the MODIS Active Fire Mapping Program where near-real-time data on fire activity and weather conditions were used to evacuate people during Californian wildfires. The Whale Watch Program has coupled species distribution models with near-real-time data on ocean conditions to divert shipping operations from critical blue whale foraging hotspots.

Dynamic management tools

One of the nice features of the work by Welch and colleagues is that they provided a start-to-finish description of how to implement dynamic management, involving data acquisition, prediction, dissemination and automation. Using the EcoCast tool (pictured), they created maps showing the best areas to harvest swordfish in order to minimise by-catch of threatened species such as sea lions, blue sharks and leatherback turtles. Their tools can automatically produce maps on a daily basis by combining near-real-time data on ocean conditions, such as wind and sea surface temperature, with habitat suitability models for the target fish species and the species at risk of by-catch. Scripts to implement their tools are published online with the paper and could provide useful starting points for other dynamic management developers or practitioners.

Are we there yet?

One of the main sensitivities of dynamic management tools when applied to fisheries was missing environmental data in variables such as eddy kinetic energy, sea surface temperature and sea level anomaly. Model outputs were sensitive to the number of days between the recording and the data used in the model, which could influence the final management recommendation. Welch and her colleagues conducted a sensitivity analysis to show where biases from missing data occurred. Management recommendations could therefore be made which acknowledge and account for these potential biases. As real-time data becomes more abundant, accurate and available, these sensitivities should decline.

Thinking ahead

What would dynamic management look like if we took away current constraints on knowledge, resources and technology? I have a fascination with fire ecology and couldn’t help thinking how these tools could be used, not only for evacuating people during fire, but also for guiding prescribed burning for biodiversity conservation. What if micro-trackers told us where fire-sensitive animals were in real-time and we could plan our burning operations around mapped outputs? What if land managers could integrate data on spatially dynamic species with vegetation fire history and active fires to call in priority areas for prescribed burning or exclusion zones for sensitive habitats? Heather Welch and her colleagues described a complex problem clearly and provide inspiration for making the use of increasingly sophisticated technologies for conserving species in dynamic systems.

Read the full open access article, Practical considerations for operationalizing dynamic management tools in Journal of Applied Ecology.

An infographic summarising the work is also available here.