Variable perceptions of food webs have conservation consequences

One of the best parts about being a scientist is exploring the unknown and building a deeper understanding of how biological systems work. However, our uncertainty surrounding some of the seemingly basic questions about biological systems such as ‘what is a species?’, can present tremendous challenges when it comes to conservation and management. For example, how can we say whether a species is endangered if we can’t agree on what a ‘species’ even is? In this paper we explored how uncertainty in scientific expert’s perceptions of food web structure, can have tremendous consequences when it comes to conservation and management of Pacific Herring, a key forage fish. In particular, we quantified how scientific, local, and traditional knowledge experts vary in their perceptions of food webs centered on Pacific Herring—a valuable ecological, economic, and cultural resource in Haida Gwaii, BC, Canada. Expert perceptions of the herring food web varied markedly in structure, and a simulated herring recovery with each of these unique mental models demonstrated wide variability in the perceived importance of herring to the surrounding food web. Using this general approach to determine the logical consequences of expert perceptions of social-ecological system structure in the context of potential future management actions, decision-makers can work explicitly toward filling knowledge gaps while embracing a diversity of perspectives.

Stier A.C., Samhouri J.F., Gray S., Martone R., Mach M., Scarborough C., Kappel C., B. Halpern B., and  P.S. Levin. 2017. Integrating expert opinion into food web conservation and management. Conservation Letters. PDF 

Adrian Stier