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8 July 2015 1 min read

A new approach to help ecosystems bounce back after human disturbances was applied to a simulated disaster at Ningaloo Reef, and is applicable for decision-makers in other marine and terrestrial contexts.

Researchers from CSIRO and the Australian National University (ANU) have developed a way to help ecosystems bounce back after human disturbances such as shipping, oil exploration or fishing, and have applied it to a coral reef fish species.

The method helps conservation managers create a cost-effective plan to bring species back from the brink of extinction in a local area, by building connections with the same species in nearby locations.

The cost of environmental damage can be substantial. This new method, developed jointly through a long-standing collaboration between researchers at CSIRO and ANU, has the potential to quantify the cost and help direct resources for the best environmental outcomes.

Lead author of the paper, Dr Rich Little from CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere, says the research shows how to calculate the cost of offsetting environmental damage, which will help environmental managers make cost-effective decisions within their financial constraints.

The method uses an ecological trait called resilience, which is based on connections between separate populations of the same species. By optimising the connections between the different populations, the technique will enable conservation staff to work out the best course of recovery if an incident all but wipes out the species in one area.

Co-author Professor Quentin Grafton, from the Crawford School of Public Policy at ANU, says the permanent loss of one ecological function can be offset by investment in another. He says the world is subject to nasty surprises, and this work for the first time shows how to promote faster species recovery following such a surprise.

The approach was calibrated using the hypothetical case study of a simulated disaster among spangled emperors, a coral reef fish, at Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia. The results are published in Royal Society Open Science.

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