The Conservation Planning Group Applied conservation research

NEW PAPER: Sympathy for the devil: Detailing the effects of planning-unit size, thematic resolution of reef classes, and socioeconomic costs on spatial priorities for marine conservation

Jessica and colleagues from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University, and the French Research Institute for Development recently published a paper in PLoS ONE. The study looked at different factors related to data resolution and spatial heterogeneity involved in the process of prioritising areas for marine conservation, and how changes in these factors influenced where areas were prioritised. All prioritisation factors examined had a clear impact on the spatial configuration of priority areas that were identified, to varying extents. This study has been an important step towards understanding how such data and assessment characteristics – particularly the use of socioeconomic cost data – can influence the outputs of spatial prioritisations for marine conversation, offering practical recommendations towards more effective future conservation planning.


Spatial data characteristics have the potential to influence various aspects of prioritising biodiversity areas for systematic conservation planning. There has been some exploration of the combined effects of size of planning units and level of classification of physical environments on the pattern and extent of priority areas. However, these data characteristics have yet to be explicitly investigated in terms of their interaction with different socioeconomic cost data during the spatial prioritisation process. We quantify the individual and interacting effects of three factors—planning-unit size, thematic resolution of reef classes, and spatial variability of socioeconomic costs—on spatial priorities for marine conservation, in typical marine planning exercises that use reef classification maps as a proxy for biodiversity. We assess these factors by creating 20 unique prioritisation scenarios involving combinations of different levels of each factor. Because output data from these scenarios are analogous to ecological data, we applied ecological statistics to determine spatial similarities between reserve designs. All three factors influenced prioritisations to different extents, with cost variability having the largest influence, followed by planning-unit size and thematic resolution of reef classes. The effect of thematic resolution on spatial design depended on the variability of cost data used. In terms of incidental representation of conservation objectives derived from finer-resolution data, scenarios prioritised with uniform cost outperformed those prioritised with variable cost. Following our analyses, we make recommendations to help maximise the spatial and cost efficiency and potential effectiveness of future marine conservation plans in similar planning scenarios. We recommend that planners: employ the smallest planning-unit size practical; invest in data at the highest possible resolution; and, when planning across regional extents with the intention of incidentally representing fine-resolution features, prioritise the whole region with uniform costs rather than using coarse-resolution data on variable costs.

The entire article and all supporting and data availability information are available for free and open access at:

Full reference: Cheok J, Pressey RL, Weeks R, Andréfouët S, Moloney J (2016) Sympathy for the Devil: Detailing the Effects of Planning-Unit Size, Thematic Resolution of Reef Classes, and Socioeconomic Costs on Spatial Priorities for Marine Conservation. PLoS ONE 11(11): e0164869. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0164869

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We are a multidisciplinary group of researchers at James Cook University, interested in all aspects of conservation planning and led by Prof. Bob Pressey. We are based at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, the College of Marine & Environmental Sciences, the College of Business, Law & Governance, and the Cairns Institute. We collaborate widely with conservation biologists and practitioners worldwide. 

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