Over the last three decades, hundreds of systematic conservation planning (SCP) studies were produced, yet we have no reliable way of finding information on SCP methods, trends, and progress. In particular, the number of studies added to the marine SCP literature has increased exponentially over the past 10 years (Figure 1). This accelerating output of marine SCP methods and applications – which includes many in support of new marine protected areas (MPAs) – highlights the need for more systematic documentation and analyses of SCP applications to date.

Figure 1. Cumulative number of marine SCP studies

To address this challenge, the Conservation Planning Group convened an international group of researchers from Australia, Brazil, Canada, United Kingdom and USA to develop a database to document SCP exercises. This effort resulted in the creation of The Conservation Planning Database, which aims to help track the development and impacts of SCP applications and to learn from these efforts.

The database includes information on each of the exercise’s planning goals, location and spatial extent of the effort, targeted conservation features, methods, outputs, and the roles of stakeholders (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Structure of the database on systematic conservation planning

In a paper published in Biological Conservation (Álvarez-Romero et al. 2018), we present this database and synthesize global advances and trends in marine SCP planning. This work included documenting and analyzing 155 exercises found in the primary literature. The database can be accessed online (database.conservationplanning.org) and further details are available at James Cook University’s Tropical Data Hub (tropicaldatahub.org).

Trends in marine conservation planning studies

Our review of marine planning studies revealed an exponential increase in marine SCP over the past 15 years, with over 160 papers in the primary literature and an increased rate of publication over the last five years. Increasingly, attention is being given to socioeconomic considerations, land-sea planning and, more recently, to ecological connectivity and climate change (Figure 3). Other topics gaining traction but proceeding more slowly included marine zoning, planning for pelagic ecosystems, and dynamic oceanographic processes.

Figure 3. Chronological trends in coverage of broad topics in marine SCP

We found little evidence of input from practitioners in these exercises. The lack of stakeholder participation could be related to our focus on the peer-reviewed literature, but nonetheless is concerning. SCP studies developed without input from conservation practitioners may be of limited validity and utility.

Geographic coverage and gaps in marine planning studies

We found important gaps in the geographic coverage of marine SCP studies. Moreover, the geographies covered were not well aligned with the places conservation scientists have identified to be at greatest risk. For instance, a spatial exploration of the distribution of studies shows that more than half (55%) of the marine ecoregions of the world (MEOW), have no planning exercises recorded in the primary literature (Figure 4). Of those ecoregions with studies, about 13% have only one exercise recorded.

Figure 4. Geography of marine SCP studies

Expertise and knowledge sharing in marine planning

Understanding where planning has occurred and where there is expertise in SCP is critical for advancing marine conservation. Our analysis revealed that research institutions or organizations from five countries have led the majority (~80%) of marine studies (Australia, USA, Canada, United Kingdom, and South Africa). This suggests there are organizations with strong resources and expertise in SCP within these countries. These countries have extensive networks, spreading over 80 countries (Figure 5), which suggest the potential for capacity building through collaboration with organizations from these countries.

Figure 5. Marine SCP planning networks

Australian organizations have contributed significantly to developing methods and tools that are widely used in SCP, which further explains the role of Australia as an important “marine SCP hub”. For example, the Marxan conservation planning software, developed to support the rezoning of the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) Marine Park, was used in 56% of all studies in our database (64% when including Marxan relatives). The GBR planning hotspot illustrates the importance of some regions in supporting the development of best practices in marine planning more generally.

Consolidating a global conservation planning database

Our database is an important advance in the science and practice of SCP. It can be used in a variety of ways, including:

  • Conservation practitioners can assess geographic coverage and gaps
  • Scientists and practitioners can access information to identify trends in the use of data, methods, and tools
  • Reviewers and editors of journals can assess whether studies have covered important literature and developments
  • Donors and non-government organizations can identify regions needing further work
  • Practitioners and policy-makers can learn from previous plans, find expertise and seek advice
  • Governments and international organisations can track progress and, eventually, assess impact

An ongoing collaboration with UNEP’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre will help bring additional expertise and resources required to consolidate the database, including securing hosting and maintenance arrangements. Further improvements may include adding functionality to match and compare the configuration of initial designs with the implementation of conservation actions, such as protected areas registered in the World Database of Protected Areas.

Further, collaboration with key international organizations (e.g. Convention on Biological Diversity, Society for Conservation Biology, IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas) will be needed to reach the international community for support and to encourage organizations and countries to include and update their plans.

The paper describing the database and review of marine SCP is freely available here.

Citation: Álvarez-Romero, J. G., M. Mills, V. M. Adams, G. G. Gurney, R. L. Pressey, R. Weeks, N. C. Ban, J. Cheok, T. E. Davies, J. C. Day, M. A. Hamel, H. M. Leslie, R. A. Magris, C. J. Storlie. 2018. Research advances and gaps in marine planning: towards a global database in systematic conservation planning. Biological Conservationdoi:10.1016/j.biocon.2018.06.027

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