Marine ecosystems are complex. Despite advances in our understanding over the past century, much remains a mystery about the linkages among species, habitats, and oceanographic factors. Thus, in managing the ocean, uncertainty is unavoidable. Policy makers and managers must make decisions despite incomplete data, imperfect models, and scientific disagreement. To account for this uncertainty, an adaptive approach is necessary: policy decisions are monitored to gauge their effectiveness, then altered as necessary to reflect what has been learned.

This is called adaptive management. Although definitions of the concept vary – from simply “learning from experience” to a more rigorous approach that involves treating policy decisions as actual experiments – adaptive management is widely considered a core concept in ecosystem-based management. What does it look like in practice? Here, MEAM asks several practitioners for their insights; their responses illustrate the range of perspectives on what adaptive management is.

A. Getting the public to understand the “learning as we do it” philosophy

By Laurence McCook, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), Australia. E-mail:

[Editor’s note: Laurence McCook is manager of ecosystem health and resilience for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, and is the Authority’s acting director of climate change. He was lead author of a study “Adaptive management of the Great Barrier Reef: A globally significant demonstration of the benefits of networks of marine reserves”, published this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (]

On defining “adaptive management” and its application on the Great Barrier Reef

I would use a pretty broad definition for adaptive management: “learning by and from doing”. In this I would include things as simple as changing policies as new information becomes available. In our paper [in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences], we illustrate the progression of zoning management in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park over the last 35 years in response to increasing knowledge of both the bio-physical system and the people who interact with it.

The more formally our policies follow the adaptive management cycle (iterative planning, implementation, auditing/review of outcomes, and adaptive planning in response to review) the more they fit the stricter definitions of adaptive management. GBRMPA has developed a plan to improve water quality through changes to land-use practices, based on knowledge of impacts on the reef. That plan specifically includes a large monitoring program that aims to inform the adaptation of the plan. More generally, we are also now required by an Act of Parliament to produce a review, every five years, of the state of the environment, the pressures on it, and management effectiveness in addressing those pressures. Although there is no formal requirement to act upon that assessment, there should be very considerable political pressure to do so.

Historically, much of the management of the Great Barrier Reef has involved “passive” adaptive responses to emerging information, rather than proactively incorporating assessment of effectiveness into management actions. However, such monitoring was explicitly implemented through the Marine Park’s 2004 rezoning plan and incorporated into recent management efforts to address terrestrial runoff. And more active experimentation has been done as part of a line-fishing experiment, which altered zoning schemes (i.e., opened and closed areas to fishing) to test zoning effects on fish stocks.

On the challenges of practicing adaptive management

In addition to having to gain community acceptance of increased restrictions on uses, the challenges of practicing adaptive management include the lack of public understanding of the “learning as we do it” philosophy. Most community members feel that we should be reasonably sure of the best strategy prior to implementation. We shouldn’t do “experiments” that affect their livelihoods! Of course, very often, we simply don’t have enough knowledge of the system. Waiting for greater certainty carries the real risk of leading to “do nothing” strategies whilst we seek sufficient information – with the likely outcome of major environment degradation occurring before we finish understanding the system.

The other major challenges are probably matters of scale: the Great Barrier Reef is a really vast area, which makes any management challenging and complex. Similarly, the public’s knowledge and understanding of the ecosystem often involves very different time scales to those that management may be able to influence.

To address these challenges, we invest a lot of time and energy in creating partnerships and stewardship within the community, including considerable education and awareness-raising efforts. It is way too easy to under-estimate the investment these things require: they are essential to effective outcomes.

B. Collect the right level of monitoring data to support the decisions you need to make

By Nick Salafsky, Foundations of Success. E-mail:

[Editor’s note: Nick Salafsky is co-director of Foundations of Success, an organization that works globally with conservation practitioners to help them test assumptions, adapt, and learn ( Salafsky has authored multiple publications on adaptive management, and was closely involved in the development of Open Standards for the Practice of Conservation, which lays out a framework for adaptive management, available at]

On treating management actions as experiments

Adaptive management requires practitioners to treat their actions as experiments, collecting information about whether they have worked as planned and how they can be improved over time. However, it does not necessarily require sophisticated quantitative experimental designs. The key is to collect the right level of monitoring data to support the management decisions you need to make. If you are doing a “routine” application of a tried and true technique, you may only need to collect minimal monitoring data. If, on the other hand, you are trying a novel strategy, or perhaps working in a situation where there is a high cost of failure (for example, managing the last population of an endangered species, or managing a project with lots of reputational risk for your organization), then you have to invest more in your monitoring strategy. Adaptive management requires conceptual clarity regarding the assumptions you are making. As one of my favorite quotes says, “It is better to have approximate answers to the exact questions than to have exact answers to meaningless questions.”

On global differences in adaptive management

It is dangerous to generalize what adaptive management looks like in different parts of the world. I have seen residents of rural villages in the developing world do a great job of monitoring and testing the assumptions behind their actions when provided with good coaching support. Meanwhile I have seen sophisticated organizations in the developed world fail miserably because their scientists try to implement the perfect study that becomes the enemy of the good monitoring program. The key in all cases is to use models and terms that are accessible and understandable to the decision makers. One key principle of adaptive management is that it cannot be done by experts for managers. Rather it has to be done with managers.

Another principle is that the iteration cycles should be kept as brief as possible. Be agile and fail fast, rather than create ponderous systems that are difficult to revise except at great expense or with major revisions.

C. Adaptive management amid resource limitations and multi-jurisdictional authorities

By Mike Murray, US Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. E-mail:

[Editor’s note: Mike Murray is deputy superintendent for programs at the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary in the US. He coordinated a multi-year process that updated the sanctuary’s management plan in 2009.]

On adaptive management in the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary (CINMS)

Adaptive management at the CINMS has taken many forms over the years, based on scientific and social processes, involving many stakeholders, and forging ahead in the face of uncertainty, resource limitations, and other challenges. A recent management plan and regulatory update for the sanctuary ( was based on an adaptive management process that engaged stakeholders and experts and led to comprehensive changes in management. In addition, a zoning process that began in 1999 resulted in the establishment of 11 no-take marine reserves and two marine conservation areas, designated in phases in 2003 and 2007 ( The planning process was highly adaptive in nature, involving a design approach that sought to optimize reserve sizing and placement given biological and socioeconomic goals, available and newly collected data, close stakeholder involvement and consensus building, and scientific review and assessment.

While CINMS managers may not always have the resources to implement new management actions, the adaptive management planning process continues. A biogeographic study of CINMS waters and the surrounding marine region was prepared in 2005. It provided an assessment of physical oceanography and habitats, species distributions, and biologically significant zones relative to a range of options for changing the sanctuary’s boundaries ( The idea of expanding CINMS boundaries was raised during the management plan revision process, and the biogeography study will help inform a future boundary change decision.

On challenges of practicing adaptive management

Often management adaptation simply requires financial resources beyond the means of the sanctuary. Another challenge can be the multi-jurisdictional nature of management within the sanctuary’s boundaries. CINMS managers do not have unilateral authority to change the rules within the sanctuary, but instead must often coordinate and work through a number of other state and federal agencies, which adds time and complexity to the adaptive management process. Related to this, issues requiring an adaptive management approach often transcend the boundaries of the sanctuary, thus limiting the direct options available to CINMS managers. Finally, tightening federal budgets for national marine sanctuaries and other partners has limited our ability to sustain many ecosystem monitoring programs that offer long-term data to help inform management decision-making. In fact, a 2009 report on the condition of the sanctuary revealed that most of what we and other experts know about the health of the CINMS is often based on professional judgment more than data sets.

On addressing those challenges

One approach to facilitate adaptive management in the face of jurisdictional complexity, limits on CINMS authority, and the limited geographical range of the sanctuary has been to commit to a long-term engagement of numerous resource agencies in the management of the Channel Islands area. We do this primarily through inviting ten federal, state and local agencies to join our 21-member, community-based Sanctuary Advisory Council. The council meets every two months to discuss issues, learn from experts, and craft advice that helps guide adaptive management. This forum has helped agency partnerships to develop and be sustained, aiding government institutions in finding ways to navigate jurisdictional roadblocks to adaptive management.

D. Balancing the change implied by adaptive management with the certainty implied by spatial planning

By Bud Ehler, Ocean Visions, Paris, France. E-mail:

[Editor’s note: Charles “Bud” Ehler is co-author with Fanny Douvere of the UNESCO guide Marine Spatial Planning: A Step-by-Step Approach toward Ecosystem-Based Management ( He is also a consultant to the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, UNESCO.]

On adaptive management and spatial planning

Marine spatial planning (MSP) promotes the idea that plans should be flexible and incorporate new information as it becomes available – i.e., MSP should be continuing and adaptive. New plans and their management measures should build upon the results of previous experience, and change appropriately to achieve specific environmental and social objectives. Therefore, performance monitoring and evaluation and a framework for altering course if conditions warrant are essential ingredients of MSP.

At the same time, MSP promises to add certainty to both governmental and business decision-making through the identification of areas that are suitable or unsuitable for development or conservation, or in some cases, specific uses: e.g., renewable energy, shipping, military activities, or protected areas. Adaptive management is not new to businesses. Businesses implement adaptive management all the time – or they go out of business.

On the practice of adaptive planning in The Netherlands and Norway

Marine spatial plans should not be changed too substantially too soon after implementation. Small adjustments might be needed, but radical change soon after implementation might suggest that the MSP process and its analyses were faulty, its monitoring defective, or something else was seriously flawed. Even small changes, accumulated over time, might move the plan so far from its initial objectives and management measures that it might suggest a top-to-bottom review of objectives, analyses, and monitoring. Good practice suggests that plan revisions should be made regularly on a three- to five-year cycle.

That is exactly what is happening in two countries where MSP is mature enough to move into second- and third-generation plans. The Netherlands and Norway both use an adaptive approach to MSP. The Netherlands, one of the early MSP pioneers, has made several adjustments to its plan over the past six years, primarily due to more specific national guidance on the amount of wind energy expected to come from offshore areas. The first plan (2005) talked about various opportunities to designate 1000 km2 for wind energy that could produce 6000 MW of power. The second plan refined that objective to produce a specified amount of energy close to the coast and the remainder farther away. A principle of the approach of The Netherlands is to not make irreversible decisions too soon, leaving options open for as long as possible, and demonstrating to the private sector that other possibilities will be available in the future. Not all the ocean space of The Netherlands is allocated to specific uses. This approach allows new users (e.g., offshore aquaculture) assurance that space will be available.

Similarly in Norway, the first plan for the Norwegian part of the Barents Sea (2006) is now being revised, based on experience from its implementation. A new plan will be completed in 2011. Few questions about adaptation versus certainty have arisen at the strategic level thus far in the plan revision process – e.g., the goal of sustainable use of marine resources has not been questioned. On the other hand, tactical-level decisions regarding small changes to zoning plans are being discussed, but are not expected to have much impact on the new plan. General agreement exists that the original plan allows for enough certainty for the business sector to make its decisions. The fact that the plans are explicitly adaptive has gained greater acceptance by users of decisions that initially have gone against their interests. The users know that, in a later revision, they can raise the same questions about decisions they may have lost in the first round of planning.

[Bud Ehler thanks Leo De Vrees and Titia Kalker of The Netherlands and Erik Olsen of Norway for updating him on plan revisions in their respective countries.]

E. Building adaptive capacity may be more important than adaptive management

By David Obura, CORDIO East Africa, Kenya. E-mail:

[Editor’s note: David Obura is East Africa regional coordinator of CORDIO, an international research program to respond to coral reef degradation in the Indian Ocean. Obura co-authored the report A Framework for Social Adaptation to Climate Change, published by IUCN in 2010 and available at]

On the relationship between adaptive management and adaptive capacity

My take on management in general has always been that it is just one of the tools available to take action on various things. For example, in developing countries, “management” may be irrelevant without also improving welfare and education so that people can make better choices. There has tended to be an overly strong focus in the marine conservation world on “management” and “managers” as if it/they exist in isolation from broader society. Since we have so little scope to do much with management in developing countries – or, at least, there are many more important/socially relevant things to work on (such as welfare and education) – the focus on management can miss the forest for the trees.

Therefore, having said that, adaptive management is just one component of the more holistic concept of adaptive capacity in socio-ecological settings. My work, which has traditionally focused on understanding coral bleaching to improve reef management under climate change, is now turning toward using that knowledge of reefs to increase the resilience of coastal communities/societies (i.e., increasing their adaptive capacity). Among the outcomes of this will be less destructive use of reefs and increased resilience of coral reefs and other ecosystems (we hope). There are many other ethically important outcomes as well – at individual, community, and institutional levels.

On resource management in the Western Indian Ocean region

In this region, I don’t think there are any marine management regimes that are effectively protecting resources and ecosystems from long-term change (climate and increasing human populations). They are all too small, too parochial, not inclusive enough, too driven by institutional agendas/personalities/funding cultures. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be there; it just means that they are not truly effective.

In terms of adaptive management in the region, probably the new community-based initiatives – such as Velondriake in Madagascar, and the Kuruwitu community-run marine park in Kenya – are “adaptive” in that they have been set up recently in response to social and resource pressures. But they are not strictly adaptive in the sense that they don’t have clear rules of engagement that are set and then scrupulously followed (or further adapted for solid reasons). In general the problem is that management in Africa tends not to be based on information yet, but more on institutional, personal, or historical factors. So decisions tend not to be made on clear guidelines or knowledge, but on other factors in response to unfolding events.

BOX: More sources on adaptive management

“Adaptive co-management for building resilience in social-ecological systems”, Environmental Management (2004).

Adaptive Management: A Tool for Conservation Practitioners. Published by Biodiversity Support Program (2001).

Miradi Adaptive Management Software – assists conservation practitioners in designing, managing, monitoring, and learning from their projects. Free trial available.

“The need and practice of monitoring, evaluating and adapting marine planning and management – lessons from the Great Barrier Reef”, Marine Policy (2008).