Leslie helps design database to assess, guide ocean conservation efforts

An international team of researchers, including Heather Leslie of the University of Maine, has released a new tool for assessing ocean conservation.

The Conservation Planning Database project is a free, peer-reviewed online resource for conservation scientists and practitioners to understand how marine conservation has been approached in various places throughout the world.

“This database gives the scientific community a way to assess trends in conservation planning methods and applications, so that we can learn from past work and shape new research and practice accordingly,” says Leslie, director of the UMaine Darling Marine Center in Walpole.

The database builds on decades of global ocean conservation history and brings together studies of marine protected areas and other area-based conservation measures.

In the U.S., marine protected areas include marine sanctuaries, marine wildlife refuges, estuarine research reserves and ocean parks.

“Great Salt Bay, just a walk from my house on the Damariscotta River estuary, was the state’s first marine protected area,” says Leslie, who also is the Libra Associate Professor in the School of Marine Sciences.

Designation of Great Salt Bay as a protected area has highlighted its ecological and economic value, and also facilitated land conservation and local communities’ engagement with the place, says Leslie.

Residents and visitors come together each May to celebrate the return of the alewives to Damariscotta Mills, for example.  

“Since I first explored this estuary in the late 1990s, working with landowners to improve water quality, I’ve been intrigued by the power and promise of place-based conservation,” Leslie says. “That interest led to my work on marine conservation planning, and ultimately, to my contribution in this project.”

Jorge G. Álvarez-Romero from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (Coral CoE) at James Cook University in Australia, led the global study that seeks to lead to better marine parks by bridging critical gaps in marine conservation planning.  

The number of systematic conservation planning studies, used to determine which areas would be most useful in conserving marine biodiversity, are growing quickly, he says.

Deficiencies, though, exist in the present system, says Álvarez-Romero.

“There is no structured or reliable way of finding information on methods, trends and progress. There is little evidence of input from stakeholders,” he says. “There are important gaps in geographic coverage and not enough work done on the areas most threatened by human impacts.”

For example, says Leslie, ocean areas that include the South European Atlantic Shelf, the West and South Indian Shelf, the South China Sea, and Eastern Caribbean have few or no documented planning exercises in the online database.

While it may be that conservation activities in these places simply are not published in the peer-reviewed literature and haven’t (yet) made it into this database, Leslie says the team’s findings emphasize the need for increased attention to such threatened areas.

“We know the number and total extent of protected areas will increase significantly during the next few decades,” says Bob Pressey, JCU Distinguished Professor, chief investigator at Coral CoE and co-leader of the study. “The challenge is making this expansion count in terms of biodiversity conservation.”

The Conservation Planning Database and computer-based protected area design tools provide resource managers and stakeholders with opportunities to use best practices when planning marine protected areas.

Morena Mills, conservation scientist at Imperial College London and co-leader of The Conservation Planning Database project, says a global database to track development, implementation and impact of conservation planning is urgently needed.

So too, she says, is closer analysis of the literature, and continuous and comprehensive documentation of conservation-planning exercises.

“The new database is a move toward a centralized repository of information of planning exercises and can advance conservation theory and practice.”

Contact: Beth Staples, 207.581.3777