Tundi’s Take: Time considered: When the time frame of the achievable does not match the time frame of the desirable

The Skimmer on Marine Ecosystems and Management

By Tundi Agardy, Contributing Editor, MEAM. Email: tundiagardy [at] earthlink.net

Time’s effect on us is inescapable, even in EBM. No matter how far ahead planners extend their gaze, they are grounded in the context of the moment – and subject to unexpected twists that can flip even the best of plans on their heads. Similarly, no matter how proactive and progressive the marine policies that flow from planning, the reality is that, in all forms of government, political change that undermines, or even guts, well-crafted policies can happen in an instant. And the time scales of management decision-making rarely match the time scales of ecosystem response. So even in cases without abrupt shocks, factoring time scales into EBM can be challenging.

While this issue of MEAM focuses on many aspects of time consideration in management, I’d like to address two specific issues. First, there is a mismatch of time scales that occurs when policies only address the near term while simultaneously putting into motion ecological and social processes that will exert their effects far into the future. Climate change mitigation policies and MPA planning provide examples. Carbon offsets may help governments reach near-term climate targets, but they can also have the unintended effect of delaying adoption of robust green energy investments and policy. In planning MPAs, short-term actions can in some cases constrain long-term aspirations. For instance, the top-down imposition of a no-take area may achieve the immediate objective of protecting a bit of habitat, but it may also alienate users and undermine long-term stewardship. Effectively, the time frame of what is achievable does not match the time frame of what is desirable.  Policy makers thus need to anticipate the long-term consequences of short-term decisions.

Which generations bear the benefits and which the burdens?

The second issue concerns the mismatch of political decision-making and natural system response. Marine management provides many good examples. Establishing fisheries closures to protect stocks of long-lived species may not show measurable effects for decades. So while the costs of management are borne by users now, the benefits flowing from that management may only be felt by their successors.  Restoration of biodiversity for the purpose of enhancing ecosystem services can also take decades, with a similarly skewed cost burden / benefit allocation across generations. Policy makers need to carefully consider how to market management decisions that will only result in positive effects far in the future, and they need to manage expectations carefully. 

Paradoxically, the reverse condition exists in some marine policies that seek to promote blue growth*. Much of the world’s frenetic marine activity is driven by prospects for fairly short-term reward and profit. But the Blue Economy has its groundings in sustainability, and that means controlling immediate exploitation so that it does not undermine long-term strategies for sustainability. That sustainability entails three parallel commitments: 1) maintaining or improving ecosystem health to sustain continued production of goods and services; 2) ensuring that growth is socially sustainable, meaning that benefits are widely shared among the very stakeholders who will become stewards of the ocean; and 3) ensuring the growth is economically sustainable, with investments paying dividends to investors and the public sector remaining committed to maintaining the conditions needed for private sector investment.  One needs only to look at the time qualifiers inherent in those requisites – ‘continued’, ‘stewards that will become’, ‘remaining committed’ – to see that the time frames underpinning a true Blue Economy are indeed beyond the near term time horizons in which politicians operate.

Very few would argue with the central dogma that we should be managing not only for today, but also for many tomorrows to come. This means anticipating the long-term consequences of policies and regulations and adapting management to the time scales of ecosystems. It may also require governance regimes that are resilient to wildly swinging political pendulums. The question is, how? How do we plan for the unknowable?

Building policy immortality

I don’t pretend to know the answer. But one possibility is to build our EBM initiatives with so much public support that they achieve a kind of policy immortality – and can withstand surprising and disconcerting political changes. Everyone would like to see a brighter future for their children, or the children of their extended families, friends, and communities. Businesses want to ensure their investments will stand the test of time. Even politicians are concerned with their legacies.  These sentiments can be corralled to build the sort of public support for long-term effective management that could elicit a groundswell of opposition to any action that undermines sustainability and equitable sharing of benefits.

To withstand the test of time, governments can establish multi-sectoral governance arrangements and even parastatal agencies to oversee marine management, much like the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) in Australia. By removing the governance of large marine areas from any one government agency, managers can be more forward-looking, and the risk of political changes undermining plans can be reduced. In fact, the GBRMPA Outlook Reporting, which presents decision-makers with scenarios of how the reef ecosystem will look in light of certain management actions in the future, projects not only a year out but also 10 and 100 years out.  At the same time, government can incentivize private sector investment in the future of marine ecosystems. In so doing, private sector commitment to sustainability could result in companies banding with the public to ensure political shocks don’t throw us off course. We already see this happening on the climate change front, and we can work hard to make it happen for the broader protection of the oceans and our planet too.

* I am using the term “blue growth” to mean increased exploitation of marine resources for economic gain, sustainably or unsustainably, and “Blue Economy” to mean development that is economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable. Apologies to those who use these terms interchangeably!