The Conservation Planning Group Applied conservation research

Conservation planning for connectivity

Ecological connectivity – the exchange of individuals among patches of spatially discrete habitat – has broad implications for how and whether species persist in a region, how they respond to natural and anthropogenic disturbances, and how they should be managed.

Social connectivity – how people are connected to each other and their connections to the environment – influences the efficacy of conservation and natural resource management strategies and governance structures.

The Conservation Planning Group has research projects that seek to investigate the importance of both social and ecological connectivity processes on conservation planning and conservation outcomes.

Towards explicit objectives for connectivity in conservation planning

Research led by Dr Rebecca Weeks

The Keppel Islands. Photo by Tane Sinclair-Taylor

Keppel Islands, photo by Tane Sinclair-Taylor

The need to consider connectivity in the design of marine reserve networks has long been recognised. Connectivity processes, with larval dispersal key amongst these, are critical to whether species persist in a region, how they respond to natural and anthropogenic disturbances, and how they should be managed. However, in the context of conservation planning, connectivity has been poorly defined, objectives fail to address the ultimate reasons for focusing on connectivity, and guidelines have provided broad “rules of thumb” rather than specific, quantitative recommendations. During the past decade or so, empirical and modelling advances have greatly improved our understanding of larval dispersal processes, and a lack of data can no longer be considered an impediment to incorporating connectivity into conservation planning. Nevertheless, conceptual and practical challenges remain in translating spatial depictions of connectivity into potential locations for conservation areas.

A practical approach to design a network of marine reserves in the Midriff Islands (Gulf of California) considering connectivity and climate change

Research led by Dr Jorge Álvarez-Romero in collaboration with COBI

Photo by Octavio Aburto

Photo by Octavio Aburto

Overfishing and climate change threaten marine biodiversity and fisheries worldwide. Addressing these problems is particularly critical in areas of high species richness and endemicity, such as the Midriff Islands, Gulf of California. In this area, the livelihoods of coastal communities are negatively affected by depletion of fish stocks and potential loss of valuable species due to climate change. Our study aims to develop a practical approach to design networks of marine reserves that consider ecological connectivity and the effects of climate change. We use up-to-date data and models on marine species distributions and ecological connectivity, as well as current systematic conservation planning methods to design and test alternative reserve networks that achieve three objectives: represent biodiversity (species and habitats) associated with rocky reefs; minimise costs to fishers and/or maximise benefits to commercial fisheries; and account for ecological connectivity and predicted ecological changes wrought by climate change. To achieve our objectives, we have developed and tested alternative methods to incorporate connectivity based on readily-available data and tools.

Advancing conservation planning for persistence: design of a long-term conservation strategy for Brazilian coral reefs

Research led by Dr Rafael Magris

pic_abrolhosThe project puts forward an approach that represents an innovative attempt to incorporate
connectivity information into routinely-used decision support tools that select optimal networks of marine protected areas (MPAs). This is an important step towards planning for species persistence, over and above representation within MPA networks. By using biophysical modeling and remote sensing, our study aims to provide a quantitative methodological framework that considers functional connectivity with a refined set of surrogates based on connectivity metrics. Coral reefs located on the Brazilian coast are used as a case study. While our study region is considered a conservation priority in the southwestern Atlantic Ocean, coral reefs in Brazil are also faced with intensifying threats from local and global pressures.

Understanding social networks to inform planning for natural resource management

Research led by Dr. Jorge G. Álvarez-Romero, in collaboration with Dr. Vanessa Adams and Dr. Morena Mills

Graziers_Michael_Lawrence_Taylor_REVSocial networks are instrumental in enabling communities to adaptively respond to environmental change and to initiate and sustain successful management of natural resources. Particular social structures can be related to effective transfer of knowledge, ideas, information and resources, thus enabling organisations and individuals to access the resources needed to manage natural resources effectively. Understanding the structure of social networks can help to identify ways of enabling collective action to manage natural resources effectively. We are using social network analysis and other social research methods to understand how social networks relate to performance of governance systems for natural resource management (NRM), as well as to identify management opportunities and constraints. Our research aims to help NRM planners to identify key actors to facilitate engagement with stakeholders, identify missing actors, and enable collaboration. Our results can help local organisations, NRM groups and agencies to understand their collaboration networks and how to build on this knowledge to access and share information and other resources to improve conservation outcomes.

Marine Protected area network design in Pohnpei, Micronesia

Research led by Dr Rebecca Weeks, in collaboration with The Nature Conservancy Micronesia

RWeeks-20140614-7216The dual aims of this project are to: 1. operationalise guidelines for marine protected area network design to ensure that MPAs are adequate to protect key fishery species of interest; and, at the same time, 2. explore options for improving the efficacy of the existing MPA network in Pohnpei. This research builds upon a recent review of larval dispersal and movement patterns of coral reef fishes and implications for marine reserve network design.

Seagrass connectivity to inform cumulative impact assessments and conservation planning

Research led by Dr Alana Grech

IMG_3245The rate of exchange, or connectivity, among populations effects their ability to recover after disturbance events. However, our understanding of the extent to which populations are connected is poor, especially in marine ecosystems. This project addresses a key research gap by using innovative spatial models to predict the connectivity of seagrass habitats in the iconic Great Barrier Reef. A numerical modelling approach will simulate the dispersal of seagrass, and a network analysis will identify critical habitats. This project advances the conservation and management of marine ecosystems by providing the information required to assess the cumulative impact of climatic and anthropogenic disturbances.


Álvarez-Romero, J.G., R.L. Pressey, N.C. Ban, J. Torre-Cosío, O. Aburto-Oropeza. 2013. Marine conservation planning in practice: lessons learned from the Gulf of California. Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems (23) 4: 483-505

Green, A. L., A. P. Maypa, G. R. Almany, K. L. Rhodes, R. Weeks, P. J. Mumby, M. Gleason, R. A. Abesamis, and A. T. White. 2015. Larval dispersal and movement patterns of coral reef fishes, and implications for marine reserve network design. Biological Reviews 90: 1215-1247

Magris, R. A., R. L. Pressey, R. Weeks, and N. C. Ban. 2014. Integrating connectivity and climate change into marine conservation planning. Biological Conservation 170:207–221. Request a pdf.

Magris, R.A., E.A. Treml, R. L. Pressey, R. Weeks. 2015. Integrating multiple species connectivity and habitat quality into conservation planning for coral reefs. Ecography, doi: 10.1111/ecog.01507.

Mills, M., J. G. Álvarez-Romero, K. Vance-Borland, H. Ernstson, P. Cohen, A. Guerrero, R. L. Pressey. 2014. Linking regional planning and local action: towards using social network analysis in systematic conservation planning. Biological Conservation 169:6-13


Jorge Álvarez-Romero

Jorge Álvarez-Romero

Rafael Magris

Rafael Magris

Rebecca Weeks

Rebecca Weeks

Bob Pressey

Bob Pressey

Alana Grech

Alana Grech

Vanessa Adams

Vanessa Adams

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About Us
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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