Credit: Hamish McCormick

Posted on 04 December 2019

Decision-making in the face of uncertainty

The Tipping points team proposes harnessing expert opinions from scientists and mātauranga Māori holders to bridge key knowledge gaps so marine managers can plan for different outcomes and prevent tipping points.

"Coastal and marine ecosystems are notoriously difficult to manage because there are unpredictable interactions between activities such as fishing and land-use as well as factors like climate change, which cause cumulative effects. These can lead to tipping points, and a catastrophic loss of the ecosystem services on which humans rely for well-being and quality of life," says Rebecca Gladstone-Gallagher who is the first author on the Frontiers in Marine Science paper.

Part of the problem is that we do not know what the early warning signs are that a tipping point is imminent.

Further exacerbating the problem is that current marine management is not fit-for-purpose to prevent tipping points, because there is an:

  • Over-reliance on limits-based management
  • Lack of early detection methods
  • A need to quantify risk and uncertainty of decisions

This can paralyse decision-making, but delaying management decisions until we have more data and improved models isn't feasible because our marine environments are declining; and pollutants from land, fishing and climate change are increasing the likelihood of tipping points.

While progress towards forecasting tipping points is ongoing and important, an interim approach is desperately needed to enable scientists to make recommendations that are credible and defensible in the face of deep uncertainty.

In the paper, the research team propose coupling expert opinion with current tools for developing risk assessments and scenario planning to bridge gaps in quantitative data, enabling scientists and managers to produce decision-making scenarios that are focused on insuring our marine ecosystems against future tipping points.

This approach will require redefining the way we think about managing for socio-ecological tipping points to include actions that not only limit drivers of tipping points, but importantly, those that increase socio-ecological resilience.

Rebecca Gladstone-Gallagher et al (Nov 2019). Old Tools, New Ways of Using Them: Harnessing Expert Opinions to Plan for Surprise in Marine Socio-Ecological Systems. Frontiers in Marine Science,

Related information

  • Our marine environment 2019, MfE/StatsNZ (October 2019) - this report details the most pressing issues in our oceans, seas, coastlines and estauries; and shows that our marine environment continues to experience pressure from the combined effects of our activities

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