Dealing with uncertainty in ecology and conservation biology

By Dr. Alejandro A. Fernández Ajó, Postdoctoral Scholar, Marine Mammal Institute – OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, & Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna (GEMM) Lab. 

Ecological research focuses on understanding how species and ecosystems interact and function, as well as understanding what drives changes in these interactions and functions over time. Thus, ecology is a critical component of conservation biology. Although uncertainty is present in any research, it is a pervasive characteristic of ecology and conservation biology, often due to our inability to control the complexity of natural systems. Uncertainty poses challenges to decision-making, policy development, and effective conservation strategies, and therefore needs to be understood and addressed when conducting ecological studies and conservation efforts.

There are several sources of uncertainty in ecological research and conservation biology. One of the primary sources arises from incomplete or limited data (epistemic uncertainty). Ecological systems are complex, and obtaining comprehensive data on all relevant variables and scales is often challenging or impossible. Data may be lacking or unavailable for certain species, habitats, or regions, which can hinder the ability to fully understand ecological dynamics and make accurate predictions. Additionally, ecological data may be uncertain or variable due to measurement errors (see blog post), sampling biases, or changes in data collection methods over time (Regan et al. 2002). Furthermore, another source of uncertainty arises from language (linguistic uncertainty). Linguistic uncertainty can result from lack of agreement in the terms and definitions used in the scientific vocabulary (see blog post), which can often result in ambiguous, vague, or context dependent interpretations (Regan et al 2002). These two source-types of uncertainty can create a complex set of challenges.

Uncertainty in ecological research and conservation biology has important implications for decision-making and policy development. When faced with uncertain information, decision-makers may adopt a cautious approach, leading to delayed or ineffective conservation actions. Alternatively, they may make decisions based on incomplete or biased data, which can lead to unintended consequences or wasted resources. Uncertainty can also affect the public’s perception of ecological issues, leading to skepticism, misinformation, or lack of support for conservation initiatives. In addition, uncertainty can also pose challenges in setting conservation priorities. With limited resources, conservation organizations and policymakers must prioritize efforts to protect species or habitats that are at the greatest risk. However, uncertainties in data or predictions can affect the accuracy of risk assessments, leading to potential misallocation of resources. Finally, uncertainty may also arise when assessing the success of conservation interventions, making it difficult to determine the effectiveness of the conservation actions.

Despite the challenges posed by uncertainty, there are ways to address and mitigate its impacts in ecological research and conservation biology. Here are some strategies that the GEMM Lab implements to navigate these nuances in ecological research:

Improving data quality and quantity: Robust data can provide a more accurate understanding of ecological dynamics and facilitate evidence-based decision-making. In this direction, the GEMM Lab develops comprehensive data collection and monitoring efforts that can help reduce uncertainty. The TOPAZ and GRANITE projects, which study gray whale ecology off the Oregon coast, are good examples in this direction due to continuous research efforts since 2015. With these projects we have developed and standardized data collection and analytical methods, improved data accuracy and precision, and are filling knowledge gaps through targeted research.

Emphasizing adaptive management: Adaptive management is an approach that involves learning from ongoing conservation actions and adjusting strategies based on new information (Allen et al. 2015). This approach recognizes that uncertainties are inherent in ecological systems and promotes flexibility in conservation planning. Monitoring and evaluating conservation interventions, and adjusting management strategies, accordingly, can help mitigate the impacts of uncertainty. With OBSIDIAN, OPAL, and HALO projects the GEMM Lab works towards a better understanding of cetaceans’ distribution and its interactions with the oceanographic conditions (e.g., ocean temperature). These research projects can help to forecast the occurrence of whale aggregations and inform management to reduce conflicts when overlapping with human activities. For instance, results from the OPAL project have been incorporated into Dungeness Crab fishing regulations to reduce entanglement risk to whales, and the GEMM Lab is now investigating the effectiveness of these regulations in the SLATE project.

With these projects, along with the many other research efforts conducted by the GEMM lab and the MMI, we are advancing research in marine ecology, through the development and application the best possible science to generate the needed ecological data for effective conservation and management of the marine environment.

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Regan, H. M., Colyvan, M., & Burgman, M. A. (2002). A taxonomy and treatment of uncertainty for ecology and conservation biology. Ecological applications, 12(2), 618-628.

Allen, C. R., & Garmestani, A. S. (2015). Adaptive management (pp. 1-10). Springer Netherlands.

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