The Conservation Planning Group Applied conservation research

The value of information

Conservation planners often make intensive use of spatial and non-spatial data (typically on biodiversity, people, and the relationships between the two), all with inherent limitations. Understanding what the data can or cannot tell, and accounting for their limitations is essential to minimize the likelihood of wrong decisions about conservation investments, especially when conservation resources are scarce. Research by the Conservation Planning Group aims to help conservation planners understand and assess the quality and relevance of data to conservation objectives.

Multi-scale patterns of benthic species composition in the Great Barrier Reef region, and implications for spatial management

Research led by Danielle Asson

Australia - Queensland - Great Barrier ReefThe Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is one of the best managed marine parks in the world.  However, there remains a large amount of information, especially at finer scales, that is unknown about the reef and its inhabitants.  Effective management techniques must be based on the best available information about species composition and interactions, patterns in species turnover, and the effects of human practices on ecosystems and species. The last rezoning of the GBR occurred in 2004.  The data used in the rezoning were limited compared to the information available today.  There were distinct gaps in our knowledge of the species composition of macroinvertebrate assemblages in reef areas, for example.  This project will use data augmented by extensive surveys since 2004 and apply innovative analytical tools to provide new insights into biological patterns on both reef and non-reef substrata. The project will also collect new data on areas where knowledge of faunal assemblages remains limited.  The analysis of data will include reclassification of the bioregions of the GBR and elucidation of the internal heterogeneity and spatial patterns within bioregions. The analyses will help to redefine conservation objectives and evaluate existing management schemes on the GBR, identify the management areas most in need of changes and refinement, and propose changes for existing and future management.

Spatial prioritisation for marine conservation – sensitivity of priorities to thematic and spatial resolution

Research led by Jessica Cheok


Conservation resources are in short supply, making effective prioritisation of conservation essential. There is much evidence to indicate that data and planning characteristics (such as size of planning units and thematic resolution of maps) can influence the outcomes of spatial prioritisation for conservation, subsequently affecting management decisions. It is important therefore to understand the influence of these factors on spatial prioritisations, especially given that half of the main stages in the systematic conservation planning (SCP) framework involve decisions related to spatial extent and resolution. For this project, we quantified the influence of planning-unit size, thematic resolution of habitat data, and spatial variability of socioeconomic cost data on spatial prioritisations for marine conservation planning, using the reserve selection tool Marxan. The influence of these factors were assessed in terms of: (i) the total extent and cost of reserve solutions, (ii) spatial configurations of priority areas, (iii) the spatial nestedness of priorities determined at different resolutions and (iv) the incidental representation of finer-resolution priorities by coarser-resolution prioritisations.

Revisiting opportunity costs for coral reef conservation planning

Research led by Dr Mélanie Hamel

Planning to maintain marine biodiversity must account for the dependence of people on marine resources, or conservation management will likely have negative socioeconomic impacts and poor compliance. When placing marine reserves, it is often assumed that minimizing lost fishing opportunities, measured with different surrogates such as proximity from shore or catch data based on yield or effort, will reduce impacts on coastal communities. But do proximity, yield, or effort at locations reflect their value to people for fishing and vice versa? If minimizing lost fishing opportunities is measured with the perceived value of fishing grounds to people, to what extent do conservation planners also minimize other potential social and economic impacts of conservation management? How should all this information be incorporated into systematic conservation planning? To answer these questions, I worked with the Riwo community of the Madang Lagoon (Papua New Guinea), where people are strongly connected to the highly threatened surrounding coral reef ecosystems.

Integrating socioeconomic factors into conservation planning: stakeholder-specific objectives produce more efficient and equitable designs in a marine protected area case study from Fiji

Research led by Dr Georgina Gurney


The efficacy of protected areas varies, partly because socioeconomic factors are not sufficiently considered in planning and management. Although integrating socioeconomic factors into systematic conservation planning is increasingly advocated, research is needed to progress from recognition of these factors to incorporating them effectively in spatial prioritization of protected areas. In this project we evaluated two key aspects of incorporating socioeconomic factors into spatial prioritization: whether socioeconomic factors are treated as costs or objectives, and whether stakeholders are treated as a single group or multiple groups. Using as a case study the design of a system of no-take marine protected areas (MPAs) in Kubulau, Fiji, we assessed how these aspects affected the configuration of MPAs in terms of trade-offs between biodiversity objectives, fisheries objectives, and equity in catch losses among fisher stakeholder groups. We found that the achievement of fisheries objectives and equity tended to trade-off concavely with increasing biodiversity objectives, indicating that it is possible to achieve low to mid-range biodiversity objectives with relatively small losses to fisheries and equity. Importantly, the extent of trade-offs depended on the method employed for incorporating socioeconomic data, and were least severe when objectives were set for each fisher stakeholder group explicitly. We show that using different methods for incorporating socioeconomic factors that require similar data and expertise can result in plans with very different impacts on local stakeholders.

Designing reserves based on coral reef habitats: costs and benefits for local communities and for conservation.

Research led by Dr Mélanie Hamel

Many conservation planning exercises use habitat maps to locate and design priority conservation areas. This approach is often promoted as a cost-effective method because habitat maps can be easier to acquire than comprehensive quality data on biodiversity, and can be created for the whole extent of the area of interest. However, many of the underlying assumptions are seldom tested. Here I will test the effectiveness of habitat-based approaches to designing reserves for coral reef biodiversity conservation and their costs to resource users, in comparison to an approach based on field records of species. I will look at trade-offs between achieving conservation objectives and maintaining opportunities for local people to use the reefs and the resources they support, and the ability of reserves designed based on habitats to capture biodiversity. To do this, I will focus on the Madang Lagoon (Papua New Guinea). For this region, I created a coral reef habitat map with several levels of detail, collected spatial information on how people use and value different parts of the lagoon, and acquired species lists for several taxa of marine organisms. The results will help conservation planners in coral reef countries, where data are limited and communities depend highly on coastal resources, to choose the right datasets for designing cost-effective MPAs according to their objectives.

The effectiveness of habitat maps to represent the distribution of biodiversity

Research led by Dr Mélanie Hamel

Relationships between habitats and the overall biodiversity they support are poorly studied in all realms because most research focuses on the links between individual species, specific taxa, or functional groups and their habitats. When characterized, these links can be modelled and used to predict spatial patterns of a species/taxa/group, usually from identified habitat variables specific to the species/taxa/group of focus. The effectiveness of habitats to serve as pattern-based surrogates of species/taxa/groups is often measured by the strength of the statistical relationship between habitat variables and biodiversity metrics (classic statistical multivariate approaches) or by the robustness of model predictions. Many terrestrial studies demonstrate the potential for habitat maps to explain biodiversity assemblages for a broad range of taxa, but in coral reef environments, the results are often extremely variable. Yet, coral reef habitats have been shown to predict patterns and distribution of specific taxa. Several underlying hypotheses could explain these variations, including the scales at which these relationships are demonstrated or the metrics and methods used to characterize them. Another possibility is that the datasets currently used to investigate these relationships in coral reef environments are not appropriate to demonstrate these links. I am looking at the best currently available habitat-biodiversity datasets in coral reef environments which cover different spatial scales and investigate these relationships, along with a high-quality comprehensive terrestrial dataset to attempt to understand this variability.


Hermoso, V., Januchowski-Hartley, S.R., Pressey, R.L., 2013. When the suit does not fit biodiversity: loose surrogates compromise the achievement of conservation goals. Biological Conservation 159, 197-205.

Pressey, R.L., Mills, M., Weeks, R., Day, J.C., 2013. The plan of the day: managing the dynamic transition from regional conservation designs to local conservation actions. Biological Conservation 166, 155-169.

Visconti, P., M. Di Marco, J. G. Álvarez-Romero, S. Januchowski-Hartley, R. L. Pressey, R. Weeks, and C. Rondinini. 2013. Effects of errors and gaps in spatial data sets on assessment of conservation progress. Conservation Biology 27:1000–1010.

Weeks, R, Russ, GR, Bucol, AA and Alcala, AC (2010). Shortcuts for marine conservation planning: the effectiveness of socioeconomic data surrogates. Biological Conservation 143(5): 1236-1244.


Jana Brotankova

Jana Brotankova

Jess Cheok

Jess Cheok

Melanie Hamel

Mélanie A. Hamel, James Cook University

Georgina Gurney

Georgina Gurney

Danielle Asson

Danielle Asson

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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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