In Search Of Conservation's 'Holy Grail' – Dealing With The Trade-Offs

Nembrotha kubaryana nudibranch (by Nhobgood)
Nembrotha kubaryana nudibranch feeding on tunicates, the Coral Triangle, E. Timor (Credit Image: Nhobgood)

“The Triple Bottom Line Solution” – When it comes to to preserving and conserving this planet’s dwindling crucial ecosystems and biodiversity “hot spots”, the mission is full of trade-offs. Effective conservation efforts can be costly and limiting access to natural resources (exploitation of which has led to the need for conservation in the first place) is not always fair and equitable to all parties involved.

The presumed, ideal solution here is the perfect balance between three factors: effectiveness (how successfully an ecosystem, animal species, of habitat has been saved), cost-efficiency (the ‘economic return’ for the effort), and equity (how competing groups perceive the availability, or deprivation, of the resources being conserved).

This is referred to as the triple bottom line solution.

In a March 28 PNAS research report entitled ‘Achieving the triple bottom line in the face of inherent trade-offs among social equity, economic return and conservation’, a team of researchers working with UC Santa Barbara’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) lay out the “surprising” result of their analysis of three existing conservation efforts and highlight the challenges that must be met to achieve the best possible conservation outcomes.

“People often think of conservation solutions that are effective, cost-efficient, and equitable –– the so-called triple bottom line solutions –– as the ‘holy grail’, the best possible outcome,” says, lead researcher and report co-author Ben Halpern (UCSB). But the reality is another matter; fundamental trade-offs emerge and achieving one goal often means failing at another.

What the Research Showed – 3 Case Studies

In the study, the researchers wanted to examine the relationship between equity and the other two conservation goals — conservation effectiveness and cost effectiveness. To do this, they examined three separate, marine conservation efforts as case studies: the process to establish Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) off the central coast of California, the southeast Misool MPA in Raja Ampat in eastern Indonesia; and the Coral Triangle in southeast Asia.

“We developed and tested methods for discovering these ideal solutions and found a surprising result,” said Halpern. “As you increase the equity of how conservation benefits are distributed to people, you compromise your ability to maximize conservation outcomes.”

Results showed that no matter the location or dominant culture, as conservation outcomes increased, equity decreased. This was due largely to imposed limitations on access to an area or the quantity of species that can be taken from said area.

As one might guess, there is a way to alleviate this decrease in equity: money. The analysis showed good conservation outcomes and equity could be achieved, but only through increasing total budgets* — sacrificing cost efficiency goals.

Apparently, though such triple bottom line solutions are touted as ideal, in reality, few people actually seem to want such outcomes.

“Different people have more or less invested in managed systems and so don’t necessarily expect to receive equal benefits,” says Halpern. “For example, if I’ve fished a place for 40 years and based my entire livelihood on that, whereas my neighbor just moved to town and fishes once a month recreationally, why should we be treated equally when it comes to making decisions about managing fisheries?”

Equity imbalances can compromise a successful conservation effort, but equity plays a critical role in conservation. If a solution is too inequitable, according to the study, this decreases the likelihood of success, as groups that are disenfranchised have no motivation to comply with the restrictions of whichever conservation program is in effect; with increased equity, self-enforcement (stakeholders’ compliance with the restrictions of the program) also increases. However, a small, vocal and powerful minority (with less equity share) can also decrease the likelihood of success.

Is there any way to insure a ‘triple bottom line’ outcome?

“Yes and no,” says Carissa Klein, study co-author and University of Queensland researcher, “It depends some on how one defines equity, and people have different types of equity that they care about. It may be easy to have equity in stakeholder engagement, i.e. all affected parties engaged in the process of making a decision, even if the outcome is inequitable. This may ultimately satisfy all the stakeholder groups.”

But there may be no single way to achieve the holy grail solution. The study, according to Halpern, provides a tool for “transparently and quantitatively understanding where, why, and how one can increase the chances of achieving these outcomes, and in which cases it is not likely possible.”

Pink soft coral (by Nhobgood)
Pink soft coral (Dendronephthya klunzingeri); Image Credit: Nhobgood

About the Coral Triangle:

From wikipedia:

More than 3,000 species of fish live in the Coral Triangle, including the largest fish – the whale shark, and the coelacanth. It also provides habitat to six out of the world’s seven marine turtle species.

The large area and extraordinary range of habitats and environmental conditions have played a major role in maintaining the staggering biodiversity of the Coral Triangle.

The biodiversity and natural productivity of the Coral Triangle are under threat from poor marine management (including coastal development, and overfishing and destructive fishing), lack of political will, poverty, a high market demand and local disregard for rare and threatened species, and climate change. An estimated 120 million people live within the Coral Triangle, of which approximately 2.25 million are fishers who depend on healthy seas to make a living. These threats are putting at risk livelihoods, economies and future market supplies for species such as tuna. Studies have highlighted the alarming decline of coral cover in this region.

Visit the Coral Triangle Initiative, main site for more information on efforts to conserve the Coral Triangle.

       * Some of this increase in budgets goes to stakeholder ‘pay-outs’ for not using a resource and to compensate for the resulting loss of income.

Scientists involved in the research are affiliated with UC Santa Barbara’s NCEAS, Center for Marine Assessment and Planning, and Bren School of Environmental Science & Management; the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions and Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland; Conservation International; The Nature Conservancy, and the Natural Capital Project at Stanford University.

Top Photo: (Nembrotha kubaryana nudibranch feeding on tunicates from East Timor) ; Image credit: Nhobgood ; CC – By – SA 3.0

Bottom photo: (pink soft coral) ; Image credit: Nhobgood ; CC – By – SA 3.0

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