“MPA Tip” is a recurring feature that presents advice on MPA planning and management gathered from practitioners and publications. Below, Nick Pilcher, a sea turtle biologist and Executive Director of the Marine Research Foundation in Malaysia, describes how to address a challenge often faced in MPA-planning processes – the perceived need for more data before conservation decisions can be made. He offers a simple method for identifying what is already known and where knowledge gaps exist.

Tip: “I managed a workshop for a conservation planning group that was looking at prioritizing research and conservation needs for marine turtles in the Sulu/Sulawesi Seascape. The workshop came at the end of a training session on marine turtle biology and conservation, and was designed to lead into the development of a Regional Action Plan for the conservation of marine turtles and their habitats. There were some 35 people in the group, all of them involved to some degree in turtle conservation in the region: park rangers, government officials, university researchers, and NGO members.

“We were discussing what needed to be done for turtles, and someone raised the point about how little we knew about them relative to management needs. Although some participants had decades of data on turtle biology, there was a perception that we didn’t know what we needed to know to manage and conserve turtle populations.

“So I ran through a very fast ‘let’s see what we do know’ exercise, using a rough Powerpoint slide I made up on the spot. I took a map of the region from an earlier presentation, wiped it clean, and then asked a series of questions to establish what we knew. In our case it was, ‘Okay, do we have any satellite tracks of turtles?’ Yes, we did, so we drew those in roughly. Then it was, ‘Do we know of any tag returns?’ Yes, okay, let’s plot those on the map. Then, ‘What about key nesting areas?’ Oh yeah, we know those – up they went. ‘What about current protected areas?’ Yes, we know those too…. ‘Major fishery overlaps? What about tourism links?’ Yes and yes, they all chimed in….

“Little by little, the map on the screen went from blank to covered in information, and eventually we were left with the gaps: ‘What about foraging grounds?’ Don’t really know where they are, said the group. ‘Mortality in fisheries?’ Nope, no idea. Etc. The whole thing took 10 minutes.

“This is a useful exercise to kick off a gap analysis process, particularly when you have a group of people who are each focused narrowly on only what he or she does. It shows quickly how much information is actually available, and highlights where that information resides. It does not fill all the gaps, and can’t because of the simplicity of the exercise. But it does focus the group down to the areas where folks need to start paying attention. When using this for an MPA process, the concept would be identical, and could help identify candidate sites quickly. Follow-up would then be needed to narrow down choices among sites.”

For more information:

Nick Pilcher, Marine Research Foundation, Sabah, Malaysia. E-mail: npilcher@mrf-asia.org