Conservation More Valuable Under Uncertainty

Decision makers increasingly turn to ecosystem services decision frameworks to identify which environmental management solutions will produce “win-win” solutions. Most of these assessments, however, have ignored uncertainty. In Conservation Letters, Ben Halpern, NCEAS Director, and his coauthors argue that the reality of uncertainty and imperfect information–and the ways people respond to these risks–must be incorporated into models in order to produce real-world scenarios.

The authors assess potential impacts of uncertainty via fisheries case studies. For instance, without uncertainty, stakeholders will fish at the maximum sustainable yield (MSY); in reality, fish populations are unstable—and therefore, uncertain, and populations could crash if fished at MSY. Considering this, fishermen will prefer reducing catch to possibly ruining their livelihoods. The authors’ key takeaways:

  1. Under uncertainty and imperfect information, “sub-optimal” solutions can become optimal, whereas formerly “optimal” solutions can end up collapsing ecosystems;
  2. Incorporating uncertainty tends to make stakeholders behave as if they have strong conservation preferences, even if they have no preference for conservation at all;
  3. Including uncertainty can reveal sizeable losses or missed gains in ecosystem service provisioning.

Given the widespread use of the ecosystem service framework by government agencies and conservation organizations, these findings highlight the urgency of accounting for uncertainties in tradeoff assessments to improve decision making– particularly since uncertainty increases the value of conservation activities to stakeholders overall.

Unexpected Management Choices When Accounting for Uncertainty in Ecosystem Service Tradeoff Analyses
R. Cabral, B. Halpern, C. Costello, S. Gaines.
Conservation Letters, 28 September 2016, DOI:



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Posted on September 29, 2016