Stressed ecosystems—better decisions for Australia's future

Published in 2011, the following report outlines recommendations resulting from the Theo Murphy High Flyers Think Tank Stressed ecosystems—better decisions for Australia's future.

Executive summary

The management of finite natural resources presents complex challenges for Australia. Many activities affect Australia’s diverse ecosystems including mining, agriculture, urbanisation, invasive species, tourism, changed disturbance regimes as well as natural events such as flood and drought. As the demand for natural resources grows we face difficult trade-off s between what sea or land use should occur where and at what cost.

Decision making is the process of choosing between actions and therefore requires a prediction of the consequence of those actions. Hence robust decision making for Australia’s stressed ecosystems depends on reliable models of ecosystems built on credible scientific, economic and social data, and an understanding of the uncertainties in these predictions. ‘Models’ (quantitative or qualitative) are important for understanding the interplay between human activities and ecological effects, identifying methods to foreshadow and mitigate negative impacts on ecological systems, and making plans for preserving and sustaining ecosystems.

The 2011 Theo Murphy High Flyers Think Tank brought together about 60 early career scientists and social scientists with diverse backgrounds, to discuss new approaches to understanding the eff ects of stress on complex ecological systems. Four Australian ecosystems were utilised as case studies for discussion:

  1. Queensland’s Bowen and Surat Basins
  2. Ningaloo Marine Park, Western Australia
  3. Melbourne’s peri-urban grasslands
  4. the Murray-Darling Basin.

In each of these regions there is a tension between different potential uses and users of the ecosystem. The issues surrounding natural resource use in each of these ecosystems are diverse and these regions have been subject to very different stresses for varying lengths of time. For instance, while the Murray-Darling Basin has been subject to extensive change and stress as a result of water use over a long period, Ningaloo Marine Park is relatively untouched. It is only in the past decade that Ningaloo has seen an increase in tourism and resource extraction interest, which has raised concerns about potential impacts on the region. Due to these differences, the four groups developed recommendations that were specific to their ecosystem and these are detailed in the subsequent sections of this document. We identified four over-arching recommendations from a synthesis of the work of the four groups. We believe that the implementation of these recommendations will help us to more effectively manage Australia’s remarkable natural endowment.

A response to these recommendations would inform and provide a scientifi c basis for two current trans-government initiatives:

There are significant opportunities for policymakers to engage with researchers and stakeholders to implement the recommendations described here and produce local, regional, state and national level management plans for Australia’s stressed ecosystems. To prevent, mitigate and manage the impacts of natural events and human activities on ecosystems requires a whole-of-government approach. The Academy believes that the recommendations from the 2011 Theo Murphy High Flyers Think Tank provide a roadmap for better ecosystem decision making. Furthermore, the Academy foresees the facilitation of an implementation process to progress these recommendations that engages federal, state and local government officials, and community, regional and industry representatives.

  1. Collect more data on Australia’s ecosystems and make it freely available.
    All predictions of the future, whether they be based on models or informed expert opinion, require information. Each of the Think Tank discussion groups lamented the relative lack of freely available, credible data describing their stressed ecosystem. In some cases, the data has not been collected, sometimes it is collected but in inconsistent ways that defy analysis or verification, and too often data has been collected but is not publicly available. We must renew investment in, and incentives for, making credible environmental, economic and social data freely available for researchers to inform ecosystem modelling. This data curation must be stable, independent and long term, regardless of which agency is responsible for managing it.
  2. Engage the community in data collection.
    One of the best ways to engage the community in charting a course for their region is by involving them in the data collection process, and in some cases reviewing the consequences of their own management actions. Simple citizen science methods can be developed that take advantage of the proliferation of hand-held communication devices to deliver credible data that can also be understood and visualised by the data collectors in real time. Such initiatives would not only engage stakeholders and the community in the scientific process (an essential part of policy development) in a constructive way, but would also significantly increase the scale of data collection for an ecosystem.
  3. Develop methods to determine the consequences of ecosystem decisions and make these accessible to all stakeholders.
    Decision makers would benefit from an enhanced capacity to predict the consequences of alternative policies and management actions. Ideally, decision making should enable all people, from politicians to stakeholders with varying technical knowledge, to visualise the consequences of decisions. In order to achieve this, accurate and transparent models are required. In aspects of the environment where more formal modelling is impossible, processes such as horizon-scanning and foresighting workshops that envisage the possible futures for Australian ecosystems resulting from particular actions should be utilised. Such processes could also be used to identify ecosystems that are likely to become critically stressed in the future so that we can anticipate and mitigate adverse outcomes rather than relying on reactionary science that may be too late to contribute meaningfully to the management of ecological stress.
  4. Involve all stakeholders in ecosystem planning and decision making.
    Participatory decision making is where stakeholders and communities can co-develop their future aspirations and determine, via an informed process, the future of their local environment. The different levels of Australian government need approaches to elicit the aspirations, capacities and desires of its people in the context of how they see the future of their landscapes. Such objective setting should involve all stakeholders and communities – education and decision making allows them to take ownership of the policies and decisions relevant to them.
    1. the establishment of a unit or taskforce devoted to foresighting to identify and guide management responses to emerging threats (Recommendation 23.3 of The Independent Review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation ACT by Dr Allan Hawke AC which was agreed to by Government in its August 2011 response to the Review).
    2. the New National Reform Agenda for Environmental Regulation (Council of Australian Governments, August 2011). This agenda acknowledges the need for major reform of environmental regulation across all levels of government to reduce regulatory burden and duplication for business and to deliver better environmental outcomes, including through greater use of regional planning and strategic assessments.

© 2021 Australian Academy of Science