Managing for resilience


Most management systems aimed at maintaining or enhancing resilience in components of the marine environment focus on reducing the cumulative nature of multiple impacts and avoiding dramatic shifts in species composition, also known as regime shifts. This is because such shifts are often long-lasting and difficult to reverse (Hughes et al. 2005). However, there are few practical tools available to managers for anticipating and responding to such shifts across the broader environment (Levin & Möllman 2015).

Two useful tools for building resilience in larger socio-ecological systems are structured scenarios and active adaptive management (Folke et al. 2002). Socio-ecological systems are constantly changing, often unpredictably. A way of assessing potential impacts and the management systems that might be required to address these impacts is to investigate a range of scenarios producing projections or if–then case studies (e.g. if we follow a certain scenario, then this is the expected outcome for the future; Evans et al. 2015). Prominent examples of such scenario investigations are those for climate change conducted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), where a range of scenarios of greenhouse gas emissions, and the associated impacts on atmospheric terrestrial and marine systems are examined (IPCC 2014). By envisaging multiple alternative futures and actions that might attain or avoid particular outcomes (i.e. mitigative measures), resilience-building management policies can be identified that slow, or even reverse, undesired change (Folke et al. 2002).

Management that builds resilience can sustain socio-ecological systems in the face of surprise, unpredictability and complexity. Because of the unpredictability of change often occurring within these systems, any management frameworks aimed at building or maintaining resilience need to be flexible and open to learning through evaluation. They also need to have the capacity to innovate to ensure that any changes are responded to on relevant temporal and spatial scales (Folke et al. 2002). Governance may also need to be adaptive, crossing jurisdictional and sectoral boundaries as new information, such as that on cumulative impacts, becomes available (Schultz et al. 2015). Management frameworks require clearly articulated and defined management objectives, including desired future ecosystem states (Figure MAR40)—for example, a healthy, functioning reef. Key indicators that can be used to monitor the trajectory of the ecosystem against these objectives need to be identified (Hedge et al. 2013; see also Box MAR11) and, in association, reference points or thresholds that the system is to be maintained above. Assessments of the risk that these reference points or thresholds might be exceeded should be carried out (e.g. Hobday et al. 2011). Finally, modelling approaches for evaluating the consequences of differing management strategies in responding to changes to the system should be incorporated into the framework.


A flowchart of integrated ecosystem assessment steps that can be applied to adaptive management of the marine environment. From top to bottom are 5 steps, beginning with scoping to identify goals of EBM (ecosystem-based management) and related threats, moving through development of ecosystem indicators and targets, risk analysis, assessment of ecosystem status relative to EBM goals and management strategy evaluation. After evaluation, the management actions are implemented, leading to management of ecosystem indicators and management effectiveness, which can then flow back around to step 2 (development of ecosystem indicators and targets), or flow upwards to adaptive management and modelling. From here the flowchart returns to step 1 (scoping).

EBM = ecosystem-based management

Figure MAR40 Integrated ecosystem assessment steps that can be applied for adaptive management of the marine environment

Within Australian marine ecosystems, ecosystem modelling approaches are being used to build structured scenarios that can investigate anthropogenic impacts on ecosystems—including increased nutrient input, climate change and fishing—and test management strategies that might be implemented in response (e.g. Fulton et al. 2005, 2011b). Ecosystem models are now at the development point where model comparisons (similar to those of the IPCC’s Climate Model Intercomparison Project) are being carried out by the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. These efforts aim to provide projections of the impacts of different levels of global emissions scenarios on marine ecosystems.

Evaluation frameworks are also being developed to assess management approaches to sectors within the marine environment. Management strategy evaluation models have been used to:

  • assist in the restructuring of frameworks for fisheries managed by the Australian Government in the South-east Marine Region (Fulton et al. 2011b, 2014)
  • evaluate biosecurity measures to reduce the risk of the northern Pacific seastar spreading further (Dunstan & Bax 2009)
  • evaluate multiple-use management strategies in the Pilbara and the Gascoyne regions of the North-west Marine Region (Gray et al. 2006, Fulton et al. 2009)
  • evaluate management options for prawn trawl fishing and differing levels of spatial zoning in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (Gribble 2007, 2009) and the North Marine Region (Dichmont et al. 2013).

Management frameworks that include adaptive capabilities have been, or are being, implemented for commercial fisheries across Australian Government, and state and territory jurisdictions (e.g. Kolody et al. 2010, Hillary et al. 2016). The Harvest Strategy Policy includes management actions to monitor and assess the biological and economic conditions of individual fisheries, with the aim of achieving defined biological and economic objectives, set out in the form of quantifiable reference points (see also Box MAR8). The harvest strategies are formally tested using management strategy evaluation methods and amended when necessary (e.g. when understanding of the status of a fishery changes or when improved estimates of reference points become available; e.g. Smith et al. 2014). In association, ecological risk assessments are carried out, and appropriate risk management responses are developed (DAFF 2007). Australia provides leadership on fisheries management strategy evaluation frameworks, both regionally and internationally.

For most sectors, however, existing management plans for the marine environment are reactive rather than proactive (see also Effectiveness of marine management) and are not coordinated across sectors. As a result, management plans fail to address the cumulative nature of multiple impacts and do not currently support improved understanding of how to build resilience within coupled socio-ecological marine ecosystems.

The National Representative System of Marine Protected Areas (NRSMPA), which aims to be representative, comprehensive and adequate, is one exception to this reactive approach. It provides an experimental framework that could improve our knowledge of resilience in the Australian marine environment. The review process incorporated into the NRSMPA also provides for adaptive management of the marine environment. Sustained ecological monitoring for at least the next decade will be required to understand the role that marine protected areas have in building long-term resilience at local and broader scales.

Evans K, Bax NJ, Smith DC (2016). Marine environment: Managing for resilience. In: Australia state of the environment 2016, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra,, DOI 10.4226/94/58b657ea7c296