Nav: Home

How people and ecosystems fit together on the Great Barrier Reef

August 14, 2020

A world-first study examining the scales of management of the Great Barrier Reef has the potential to help sustain other ecosystems across the world.

Massive marine ecosystems like the Great Barrier Reef aren't just a vibrant home to fish, corals and other creatures, they are also an important source of people's food, livelihoods and recreation.

The new study suggests the way people are managed when undertaking various activities within the marine park--like fishing, boating, and scientific research--could serve as an exemplary model for sustainably managing other ecosystems that humans use.

"There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the Great Barrier Reef is managed at appropriate scales within its boundaries," said lead author Professor Graeme Cumming, incoming Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.

The reef served as a case study for mapping and measuring different scale matches between people and ecosystems. Prof Cumming explains the concept of scale matches using a backyard garden as an example of an ecosystem.

"For a house with a garden, you already have permission to manage that garden--to mow the lawn and trim the trees inside your fences. To look after all the parts of it. That's a scale match," Prof Cumming said.

He says being able to manage only a flower bed within the garden is a small-scale match. "If you only have permission to manage the flower bed in your garden, you can manage the flowers, but your lawn and trees become unkempt. The weeds and pests affecting the flowers may come from an adjacent part of the garden, which you'd then have no control over," he said.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) manages the entire marine park. Some permits, such as permission to access areas by boat as part of a commercial operation, may cover most of the park.

GBRMPA also manages smaller scale permits within the marine park boundaries--small-scale matches that work best for activities like commercial tourism, lobster fisheries or the installation of certain structures like jetties or moorings.

The study found the permits issued for human activities generally occurred at larger scales than the particular individual marine features of interest, such as reefs or islands.

"The finding that people are managed at a broader scale than ecological variation suggests a general principle for permitting and management," Prof Cumming said. "In essence, people like to have choices about where they go and how they respond to change. This means that they prefer to operate at a broader spatial scale than the ecological features they are interested in, rather than the same scale."

The findings suggest this approach to managing people at broader rather than finer scales may be more effective. For small protected areas, increasing the size of the permissible area may even be critical.

However, GBRMPA can't manage the ecosystem's biggest impact, which lies outside park boundaries: climate change.

"Broad scale problems, like climate change, can only be managed with broad scale solutions, like global action," Prof Cumming said. "This is a scale mismatch because these impacts come from well outside the marine park boundaries."

GBRMPA also don't have control over what happens on the land directly adjacent to the reef. Not being able to stop pollutants and pesticides in storm water reaching the reef is another scale mismatch.

Prof Cumming says comparing the results of this study to similar data from other marine parks, including those that are recognised as dysfunctional, will help determine if the management of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is unusual or typical.

"This study does not offer a direct solution for management," Prof Cumming said. "But it provides a new approach that extends our toolbox for diagnosing social-ecological scale mismatches and responding to them."

Cumming S, Dobbs K. (2020). 'Quantifying social-ecological scale mismatches suggests people should be managed at broader scales than ecosystems'. One Earth. DOI: 10.1016/j.oneear.2020.07.007


Professor Graeme Cumming

Melissa Lyne
Media Manager, Coral CoE
P: +61 (0) 415 514 328

ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies

Related Climate Change Articles:

Mysterious climate change
New research findings underline the crucial role that sea ice throughout the Southern Ocean played for atmospheric CO2 in times of rapid climate change in the past.
Mapping the path of climate change
Predicting a major transition, such as climate change, is extremely difficult, but the probabilistic framework developed by the authors is the first step in identifying the path between a shift in two environmental states.
Small change for climate change: Time to increase research funding to save the world
A new study shows that there is a huge disproportion in the level of funding for social science research into the greatest challenge in combating global warming -- how to get individuals and societies to overcome ingrained human habits to make the changes necessary to mitigate climate change.
Sub-national 'climate clubs' could offer key to combating climate change
'Climate clubs' offering membership for sub-national states, in addition to just countries, could speed up progress towards a globally harmonized climate change policy, which in turn offers a way to achieve stronger climate policies in all countries.
Review of Chinese atmospheric science research over the past 70 years: Climate and climate change
Over the past 70 years since the foundation of the People's Republic of China, Chinese scientists have made great contributions to various fields in the research of atmospheric sciences, which attracted worldwide attention.
A CERN for climate change
In a Perspective article appearing in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Tim Palmer (Oxford University), and Bjorn Stevens (Max Planck Society), critically reflect on the present state of Earth system modelling.
Fairy-wrens change breeding habits to cope with climate change
Warmer temperatures linked to climate change are having a big impact on the breeding habits of one of Australia's most recognisable bird species, according to researchers at The Australian National University (ANU).
Believing in climate change doesn't mean you are preparing for climate change, study finds
Notre Dame researchers found that although coastal homeowners may perceive a worsening of climate change-related hazards, these attitudes are largely unrelated to a homeowner's expectations of actual home damage.
Older forests resist change -- climate change, that is
Older forests in eastern North America are less vulnerable to climate change than younger forests, particularly for carbon storage, timber production, and biodiversity, new research finds.
Could climate change cause infertility?
A number of plant and animal species could find it increasingly difficult to reproduce if climate change worsens and global temperatures become more extreme -- a stark warning highlighted by new scientific research.
More Climate Change News and Climate Change Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Listen Again: The Power Of Spaces
How do spaces shape the human experience? In what ways do our rooms, homes, and buildings give us meaning and purpose? This hour, TED speakers explore the power of the spaces we make and inhabit. Guests include architect Michael Murphy, musician David Byrne, artist Es Devlin, and architect Siamak Hariri.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#576 Science Communication in Creative Places
When you think of science communication, you might think of TED talks or museum talks or video talks, or... people giving lectures. It's a lot of people talking. But there's more to sci comm than that. This week host Bethany Brookshire talks to three people who have looked at science communication in places you might not expect it. We'll speak with Mauna Dasari, a graduate student at Notre Dame, about making mammals into a March Madness match. We'll talk with Sarah Garner, director of the Pathologists Assistant Program at Tulane University School of Medicine, who takes pathology instruction out of...
Now Playing: Radiolab

What If?
There's plenty of speculation about what Donald Trump might do in the wake of the election. Would he dispute the results if he loses? Would he simply refuse to leave office, or even try to use the military to maintain control? Last summer, Rosa Brooks got together a team of experts and political operatives from both sides of the aisle to ask a slightly different question. Rather than arguing about whether he'd do those things, they dug into what exactly would happen if he did. Part war game part choose your own adventure, Rosa's Transition Integrity Project doesn't give us any predictions, and it isn't a referendum on Trump. Instead, it's a deeply illuminating stress test on our laws, our institutions, and on the commitment to democracy written into the constitution. This episode was reported by Bethel Habte, with help from Tracie Hunte, and produced by Bethel Habte. Jeremy Bloom provided original music. Support Radiolab by becoming a member today at     You can read The Transition Integrity Project's report here.