Understanding risks and uncertainty key to protecting our oceans

14 August 2020

Image: Chris Cornelisen

A University of Waikato researcher is part of a $70 million 10-year Government programme to understand and characterise uncertainty, including the effects multiple industries have on our marine ecology, in order to prioritise interventions which support marine health.

Dr Joanne Ellis has received $1.399 million in funding through the Government’s Sustainable Seas National Science Challenge programme. She leads a team of scientists researching and modelling the risks and uncertainty our marine environment faces from multiple industries and climate change pressures into the future.

Sustainable Seas is one of 11 Government national science challenges designed to tackle the biggest science-based issues and opportunities facing New Zealand. Sustainable Seas has been running for five years, collecting data and information to develop knowledge about New Zealand’s coastal ecosystems and produce new ecosystem based management tools for business, Government and communities.

A recent Aotearoa Environment report identified four key pressures or stressors on the marine environment including pollutants from the land (excess sediments, nutrients and metals), use of natural resources (fisheries) and climate change effects.

“Multiple pressures acting together have complex and often poorly understood effects on marine environments,” says Dr Ellis.

“If we can better understand how these cumulative pressures impact marine species and habitats, this information can be used to develop decision-making practices that explicitly include environmental and socio-economic risks."

Dr Ellis’ team will be looking into two primary research areas:

  1. What risk assessment tools are available that incorporate uncertainty into their estimates, deal with multiple stressors, and are easily communicated to Māori and other stakeholders?
  2. How do uncertainties and social and ecological risks accumulate during decision-making?

The research will also consider future environmental factors like climate change or the emergence of new marine-based industries which bring uncertainty and impact the marine ecosystem.

Bringing risk factors together

Dr Ellis says traditionally, risk modelling has looked at individual events, industries or natural disturbances that impact our marine environment. However there has not been as much work on assessing the impacts when all these environmental stressors are considered together.

“It’s about taking an entire ecosystem approach to how we use our resources that recognises the full range of interactions within marine ecosystems, rather than considering single issues, species or services.

“It’s important to understand how all these pressures interact together to affect our marine environment so we can better manage our activities, both on land and in the water.”

A highly collaborative approach

Dr Ellis says the research will take a multi-sector approach, that includes mātauranga Māori, or a Māori world view, on how we manage our marine environments.

“We are working closely with the Department of Conservation, iwi, regional councils, industry, conservation organisations, the Environmental Protection Authority, the Ministry for Primary Industries and the Ministry for the Environment to co-develop the research program,” she says.

“Ultimately we want to help develop decision-making tools that can communicate uncertainty and risk in a way that helps support ecological, social, cultural and economic wellbeing.”

For more information on this project, visit Sustainable Seas

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