People and ecosystems

Understanding of the links between coral reef ecosystems, the goods and services they provide to people, and the wellbeing of human societies.


Ecosystem dynamics: past, present and future

Examining the multi-scale dynamics of reefs, from population dynamics to macroevolution


Responding to a changing world

Advancing the fundamental understanding of the key processes underpinning reef resilience.

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Coral Reef Studies

From 2005 to 2022, the main node of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies was headquartered at James Cook University in Townsville, Queensland (Australia)

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Protecting the unknown: what data for local coral reef conservation planning?


Monday 15th of June 2015 – 12:00 to 13:00 hrs

Building 19 (Kevin Stark Research Building) Room #106 (upstairs), JCU, Townsville
Mélanie A. Hamel
Mélanie A. Hamel

Systematic conservation planning helps to identify candidate protected areas to represent biodiversity while minimizing negative impacts to resource-dependent human communities. One of the foundations for the success of protected areas designed using such approach is relevant, quality spatial datasets: on biodiversity and on the expected socioeconomic costs incurred when implementing protected areas. However, collecting comprehensive data is challenging and expensive. In coral-reef regions, conservation planning is still at its infancy, leading planners to mimic approaches used in other realms, spatial scales, and socio-political contexts, often based on a number of untested and unstated assumptions. For instance, to minimize the difficulty and cost of data collection, habitats are typically used as proxies for biodiversity, and forgone resource extraction or economic opportunities are used as proxies for socioeconomic costs of reserves to people. The main goal of my thesis was to verify the validity of using these proxies and related objectives for local coral reef conservation planning. I focused on local planning because governance systems tend to be devolved in these regions.
First, I quantified the well-known trade-offs between global conservation objectives based on habitat representation, and local socioeconomic objectives. I used the three small Pacific islands of the Territory of Wallis and Futuna as a case study. My results highlighted the critical role of data and of the socioeconomic and geomorphologic context in achieving objectives, and also in the extent of trade-offs between conservation and livelihoods. To investigate the relevance of commonly used proxies to small-scale coral reef planning, I used the Madang Lagoon (Papua New Guinea) as a case study. I first questioned the adequacy of common proxies for socioeconomic cost. I found that information on fishing pressure and catch typically used to estimate opportunity costs did not necessarily reflect the importance of fishing areas for fishers. Since people derive diverse benefits from their coral reef environment, including fishing, I also developed a method to collect information about the perceived importance of places for these benefits. I showed how incorporating this information into planning can reduce direct negative impacts of conservation actions on the broader community, not just fishers. Then I designed reserves using several combinations of biodiversity and socioeconomic proxies (respectively habitat maps of various thematic resolutions, and proxies for fishing pressure and catch). I found that the effectiveness of these reserves at representing species while minimizing socioeconomic costs to the broader community varied strongly with the types of proxies and the taxa of interest. Importantly, more expensive datasets did not necessarily help design the best reserves.
My thesis highlights the risk of using inadequate data to identify candidate protected areas: it can lead to a false sense of achievement of both conservation and socioeconomic objectives, ineffectively protecting biodiversity while incurring significant impacts on local communities. My work also contributes to conservation planning theory and practice, by providing new methods for incorporating more relevant spatial socioeconomic information into reserve design in coral reef regions.

Bio: Mel grew up in a fishing town in Upper Normandy in France. She undertook her MSc (Ecology) at Paris 11 University and did her research project at Charles Darwin University, where she examined the diving behaviour of nesting Olive Ridley turtles in northern Australia. Fascinated by the extraordinary diversity of people, landscapes and species in the Pacific, she worked on various research projects in Northern Australia to model bird populations threatened by forestry activities, in New Zealand to monitor the health of estuaries, and New Caledonia to map coral reef habitats and discover the field of conservation planning. Mel’s experiences in the region and personal interests inspired her to pursue a multidisciplinary PhD, where she is questioning the relevance of various types of commonly used spatial information for local coral reef conservation planning. Mel’s work is mainly focused on the Madang Lagoon in Papua New Guinea.


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