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Condition Reports

Disclaimer:

For the NAMPAN pilot project, ten marine protected areas (MPAs) representing a diverse array of biogeographical settings along the Baja to Bering Sea (B2B) coast were nominated by MPA agencies in the three countries as places in which to develop and test the scorecard concept. As a proof of concept, the B2B pilot project demonstrated the feasibility of this approach in a wide variety of MPAs within all three CEC countries.

The goal of the pilot project was to develop an easy yet powerful tool for MPA managers to share evidence-based ecological information through scorecards that refine monitoring information into concise, easily understood, ecosystem health assessments. This pilot allowed distilling large amounts of complex technical and traditional/local ecological knowledge about MPA conditions into a common understanding for a few selected MPAs in the Bering Sea to Baja California (B2B) region.

The scorecards do not replace well-designed, sustained monitoring programs and reporting used by the MPA agencies themselves that should continue to be relied upon for agency-approved reporting on ecosystem condition and trends. Instead, the scorecards can serve as a tool to identify gaps in knowledge, to bridge gaps between technical/scientific communities and the public-at-large, and to allow comparisons across a broad region.

A marine ecological scorecard and condition report are an easy yet powerful tool for MPA managers to share evidence-based ecological information about water, habitat and living resources within a particular MPA.

A standardized marine ecological scorecard and condition report have been developed for North American marine protected areas (MPA) to communicate the condition of a particular MPA. The ecological scorecard provides a visual summary of the current status and trends of water quality, habitat, and living resources within an MPA, and the condition report provides a written summary of status and trends in a marine protected area.

Marine protected areas (MPAs) are managed marine and coastal areas of ecological significance, with species and/or properties that require special consideration. These areas help strengthen the conservation of marine biodiversity in critical marine habitats. There are over 1,000 MPAs in North America. These areas are managed by national, state, provincial, or territorial authorities and represent the start of a functional system of ecologically-based marine protected areas across North America. Note that several networks of MPAs cross political borders and depend on broad cooperation. This cooperation is strengthened through NAMPAN.

The initial pilot project included 14 questions. Based on the lessons learned, the number of questions was reduced to 12 to avoid duplication and streamline the process. Subsequent scorecards have 12 questions only.

Description of MPA Pilot Condition Reports

The North American Marine Protected Areas Network (NAMPAN) was born as continental vision for marine conservation in North America. This trinational approach, in order to be effective, first and foremost required a common ecological classification of marine and coastal waters on which to build cooperative action.

With the Marine Ecoregions (ME) as a common framework, the next step was to field test the collaborative approach in a region of ecological importance. The Baja California to Bering Sea Region (B2B) was selected by the three North American countries, as the pilot region to initiate building a joint marine conservation initiative, as it connects the marine realms of the three countries and offers concrete opportunities for collaboration.

Moving from the large scale-strategic priorities down to the scale where conservation action and collaboration was immediately required, NAMPAN identified 28 Priority Conservation Areas (PCAs) in the B2B region. To make the network operational, several MPAs (within the PCAs) were selected by the three countries to test the NAMPAN principles.

The NAMPAN first focus in the B2B region was to assess the environmental condition and trends of MPAs within the network. Healthy habitats and functioning ecosystems are critical components of an effective network. To assess the environmental conditions, NAMPAN developed a Condition Assessment Scorecard approach and methodology, which distills large amounts of complex technical and traditional/local ecological knowledge about MPA conditions for 10 selected MPAs.

Ecological scorecards are a tool for understanding ecosystem health, contributing to the improvement of science and evidence-based ocean stewardship, and increasing public involvement in MPA management. This assessment tool, applied broadly, could further support systematic environmental monitoring for improved regional and continental scale conservation strategies.

These ecological scorecards were produced in a pilot project carried out under the auspices of the CEC to evaluate the reach and usefulness of a common reporting tool that builds on already existing monitoring initiatives, and that can be adapted to specific national needs. As such, it is not intended to be a mandatory approach for any of the national park systems or agencies.

As a basis for the pilot, the CEC, in collaboration with MPA experts from the three countries, developed 14 standard questions about three key themes water, habitat and living resources, to describe environmental health. For each question, a standard scoring grid was developed, related to both conditions and trends.

Conditions for each ecosystem element addressed by the questions were defined on a five-point scale, ranging from superior (best it could be) to critical (worst it could be).

Trends in conditions were likewise defined in five categories ranging from rapidly improving to rapidly diminishing (likely to reach a different state in five years) and stable (unlikely to change beyond normal variation).

Selecting the 10 pilot MPA areas

For the pilot project, 10 MPAs representing a diverse array of biogeographical settings throughout the B2B region were nominated by MPA agencies in the three countries (see map). Three MPAs represented the Columbian Pacific ecoregion, with one in the Montereyan Pacific Transition, three in the Southern Californian Pacific, and three in the Gulf of California ecoregion.

These 10 MPAs also range widely in size, complexity, and environmental setting. The
smallest pilot MPA occupies 1,220 ha that includes an area of seabed and a group of small islands and reefs. The largest pilot MPA includes coastal lagoons, beaches, nursery grounds for the gray whale and open ocean habitats in over two and a half million hectares. This diversity assured that the findings would be robust and reflect the range of conditions found throughout the NAMPAN. The 10 MPAs are listed on the map, along with information about their size and administrating agencies.

Background

In moving the NAMPAN activities forward and keeping with its nested strategic approach, the three North American countries, identified the need to develop a shared monitoring program for sister sites within Priority Conservation Areas in the Baja to Bering region as a key step to addressing marine continental conservation challenges.

The CEC convened, through a series of workshops, MPA managers and a wide array of experts from the three countries to agree upon indicators and protocols to assess the status/condition of critical marine ecosystems in the B2B.

The initial vision of NAMPAN was to develop a means to share monitoring data from a number of key sites, and then on the basis of these data, aggregate information through dynamic queries in order to make comparisons of marine health across time and across different sites. As a first step, significant effort was devoted to develop an inventory of current monitoring protocols and indicators.

Multiple workshops and dialogue with expert advisors quickly helped to crystallize three key observations. First, given limited monitoring budgets, individual sites had made trade-offs in what they monitored, how it was monitored, and how frequently the monitoring was conducted. For the most part, the ecology of individual sites was distinct enough that the ecological parameters being monitoring were themselves, taken as a whole, as diverse as the ocean itself. This meant that while similar things were being monitored at a site level, seldom were the same things being monitored. Second, in part dependant on the first point, monitoring protocols being used at different sites were somewhat different, even when the parameters being monitored were the same or very similar. This discouraged comparability of the data. Third, in making trade-offs about what protocols to use and which parameters to follow, the usually limited monitoring programs that were in place at the site were designed to tell a story of key ecological features at that particular place and on a level that would allow effective management of the site.

Given these three observations, it became clear that aggregating and sharing data, other than through literature, might be scientifically inaccurate and would not produce useful comparisons at different sites. Yet, experts made it equally clear that monitoring was occurring at sites or in areas surrounding sites, and that a fair amount of data and other information about the health of the marine environment were available at these sites.

The idea for an ecological scorecard emerged from the desirability of supporting effective management at the site level. In effect, the concept of an ecological scorecard was to introduce a common reporting framework tied to the individual objectives for each site, which could build on the monitoring efforts at individual sites. Everyone directly involved in the process agreed it was not the data that were important, it was what the data meant and this meaning was already implicit in the management objectives for the site. Why not reuse the data to interpret the state and trends at the site in relation to a common reporting framework that could be used at all sites? With this idea in mind, NAMPAN then turned its attention to defining this framework and describing a method for gathering and interpreting evidence, which became the basis for preparing an ecological scorecard.

A methodology for reporting on monitoring efforts was developed over the course of December 2006 to May 2007 by the CEC. The approach builds on work in the United States Marine Sanctuary Program, which has adopted a structured series of questions that systematically address the health of its marine sanctuaries. Based on input from Canadian, Mexican and additional US experts, the marine sanctuary “System-Wide Monitoring” Program (SWIM) was expanded to include issues of concern trilaterally, and a B2B ecological scorecard system was put in place.

Evaluating the pilot MPAs

The CEC convened groups of 10 to 25 experts on each pilot MPA to consider the 14 standard questions, to present and receive evidence of conditions and trends and, based on available evidence, to render professional judgments and consensus opinions regarding the environmental health of the MPA. Managers of the MPAs identified prospective experts, who were invited to attend a workshop for discussion and consensus decisions. Expert groups included conservation managers, scientists, community officials, and selected members of various sectors of society who had intimate contact and extensive experience with the MPA.

Expert panels reached consensus answers to the standard questions for each of the 10 pilot MPAs. The experts willingly shared their observations, measurements, and data on MPA condition with others. Further, they synthesized and interpreted that information to render individual professional judgments as to the condition of the resource in question. Collectively, they evaluated evidence, diagnosed conditions, and issued prognoses for condition and trends of water, habitat, living resources, and human activities in the MPAs (see Figure 1: Methodology and Goals for NAMPAN Ecological Scorecards). This result helps to demonstrate the strong potential of an ecological scorecard approach for assessing the health of MPAs.

Pilot Project Findings

As a proof of concept, the pilot scorecard project was successful. The scorecard process effectively summarized large amounts of complex, technical evidence and distilled it into standard descriptions of environmental health for a diverse group of MPAs in three nations. The expert group discussions engaged a variety of civic interests in the scorecard process in some sites. The scorecards thus provided information of importance to local MPA managers and gave them a tool for engaging local communities in site stewardship. The B2B pilot also demonstrated that this scorecard process is applicable to MPAs at regional and continental scales, and thus holds promise for use in adaptive management evaluations at these broader levels.

The scorecard assessment process also helped identify gaps in knowledge, understanding, and monitoring information in each MPA. While the scorecards do not substitute for well-designed, sustained monitoring programs, they do support and encourage development of such programs by identifying critical information gaps.

The process used to reach consensus among experts for condition assessment, and the specific questions experts answered and discussed regarding various aspects of ocean conditions, may in fact be as important as the assessments themselves. The process also can serve as an effective tool to engage non-technical people in understanding the myriad complexities and tradeoffs inherent in resolving mixed signals of ocean health. This engagement leads to deeper understanding of ocean conditions. These reports, or scorecards, can act to bridge gaps between technical/scientific communities and the public at large, including their elected and appointed leaders.

This assessment tool, when applied broadly, could further improve regional and continental-scale conservation strategies and support systematic environmental monitoring. Only with the knowledge gained from such monitoring can local managers and communities begin to improve ocean conditions proactively by treating the underlying causes of strain, and move beyond reactively treating only the symptoms of environmental stresses.

Furthermore, the responses to the scorecard questions are also useful in evaluating the performance of conservation strategies beyond MPAs by communities and leaders across a number of governmental and organizational levels (i.e., local, state, provincial, national).

Conclusions
The scorecards and the process that produces them will help develop support for more systematic, focused, and sustained MPA monitoring. This scorecard process can also help harmonize regional and continental MPA stewardship based on science and evidence that supports local initiatives for monitoring. Moreover, the pilot project shows that scorecards possess considerable promise as a tool to improve science and evidence-based ocean stewardship, to increase civic engagement in ocean conservation, and to advance understanding of ecosystem health. When expanded NAMPAN-wide, these scorecards have the capacity to help build a community of practitioners, to encourage shared monitoring of common ocean health indicators, and to improve understanding of ocean ecosystems, biodiversity, and human interactions with nature. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the project has demonstrated that NAMPAN provides an avenue, not available elsewhere, to support North American collaborative efforts to foster trinational progress toward an effective network of MPAs in North America, and that it can and should be drawn on with respect to other MPA challenges and opportunities of shared interest to the three countries.

Next Steps and Future Challenges

The B2B pilot project demonstrated the feasibility of this scorecard process in a wide variety of MPAs within all three CEC countries. The NAMPAN group recommends expanding the scorecarding process beyond the B2B and to evaluate for consistency within other biogeographic regions among similar MPAs. In future, scorecards are needed for a larger number of MPAs within categories, e.g., size, complexity, or biogeographic setting, to determine the sensitivity of the process to detect variation in scorecard assessments and in resource conditions and trends. Comparisons with ocean areas outside the MPAs, yet within the same biogeographic regions, would allow evaluations of MPA efficacy as a conservation strategy.

To assist in this process, a protocol that describes how to conduct a NAMPAN scorecard workshop and how to prepare a scorecard is being developed, to standardize the process.

Lessons learned in the pilot will help to improve consistency of evidence collected at workshops, to define and document confidence in addressing uncertainty of information, to increase clarity of the standard questions, and to define baselines for evaluating conditions and change.

For all its successes, this NAMPAN project is not without its challenges. Comparisons of conditions among more MPAs or among biogeographic regions is a logical next step, but beyond the scope and design of the current pilot project. Furthermore, while MPAs may serve as indicators of potential ocean conditions, they are not representative of the entire region because of their special protected status. A greater number and diversity of sites would be required for such assessments. The pilot scorecards lay the foundation for a synoptic view of MPA ecosystem health in B2B ecoregions and provide a means to learn and improve the consistency of the process.

Differences in size and complexity among the 10 pilot MPAs, the wide biogeographic range of their settings and the small number of sites evaluated limit the power to make useful comparisons of scorecards among these MPAs or ecoregions.

The number of pilot MPAs within each biogeographic region (1-3) was insufficient to provide reliable information for a B2B-wide synthesis of regional conditions. However, carefully selecting and increasing the number of sites and adding non-MPA areas outside MPAs should overcome this problem

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