Tundi's Take: In Trade-offs and Choices, There Is One Simple Rule

The Skimmer on Marine Ecosystems and Management

By Tundi Agardy, MEAM Contributing Editor (tundiagardy [at] earthlink.net)

Only a fool would suggest that trade-off analysis is a simple process. But I will propose a simplifying principle. No matter how sophisticated the analysis, how rich the data on values and consequences of choices, and how large and complex the scale of analysis, there is one rule:

Avoid points of no return.

What are these points of no return? Habitat conversion that leads to loss of wetlands, seagrasses, mudflats is essentially irreversible (recognizing that restoration is possible for some systems, but generally at great cost of time and resources). Not mitigating the effects of nutrient overloading in coral reef systems can lead to critical thresholds being passed and alternative stable states - coral reefs converting to algal reefs. Action (or inaction) that leads to extirpation of a major population of organisms, or indeed extinction of a species, is an obvious point of no return.

There is faith that looking at trade-offs will naturally steer us away from such drastic consequences. But the decision to invest in a particular management scheme that balances conservation and development - or, in fact, allows development interests to override conservation - is a societal decision best made with full information, through a participatory process. Like all democratic processes, not everyone may be pleased with the choice.

Yet the right mix of protection and use is the key to long-term sustainability, which presumably is in everyone's best interests. This is why it is assumed that if everyone has a place at the table, and decision-making is based on good ecological and social science information, then consideration of trade-offs will steer management toward EBM.

Nonetheless, we see cases in which even carefully considered decisions lead to development that constrains ecosystem functioning, and sends ecosystems near or past critical thresholds. In these cases, the decision not to steer clear of tipping points may be made consciously (who really cares about mudflats anyway?), or based on flawed information - an incomplete understanding of what is valuable and in need of protection. It might also be based on a short-term view that masks the longer-term consequences of embarking on paths that culminate in ecological dead ends.

All decisions concerning marine management have short- and long-term consequences. The power of trade-off analysis is that it allows decision-makers to understand the consequences of choices - to the best of our knowledge given the vagaries of marine systems. It also has the great value of promoting transparency: decision-makers can no longer say that they did not anticipate the results that may come to pass (although they can always claim the trade-off analysis was faulty, or poorly communicated). In the end, the responsibility for the choice resides with the decider. And who that is may be the most important choice of all.

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