Conservation: From Observation to Action – Part 2: Research

In this series research assistant S. Capitain introduces the topic of wildlife conservation and outlines the steps neccessary for conservation efforts to move from observation to action. Find the first installment of the series here – The Basics of Conservation

Every drive for change, no matter whether in industrial innovations, social revolutions or ecological conservation, starts with the realisation that an improvement of a present situation is in order. In the case of species conservation, extensive observation needs to take place to provide for an efficient planning and managing process.
First off, to realize that resposnive action is required, basic research on the current situation needs to be conducted. That includes a representation of the actual numbers of a given species and their abundance. Long term observations are a crucial instrument to distinguish and understand the changes and to isolate the main problems faced by the species and their causes . To enable efficient action planning, important habitats such as migration corridors and feeding and nursing grounds need to be identified at the same time. Further levels of research include the understanding of environmental interrelations and cycles, enabling a planning process that thrives for an overall healthy environment and therefore efficient preservation. SImilarly, innovation in research is need in order to investigate new usages of reusable resources. 
The wide-reaching nature of the knowledge required is a key reason for which research and planning need to be very closely connected. With a strictly defined target and goal, research can be conducted on a demand led basis, efficiently channelling financial and human resources. 
Additional knowledge can be obtained by working with local communities. Their unique experience and observations cover a much longer time and offer deeper insight than formal research could ever do. 
To give an example of just how important the basic understanding of environmental relations is we can look at the Kahekili Herbivore Fisheries Management Area (KHFMA) in West Maui, Hawaii. 
Over the course of only 15 years more than half the coral close to Kahekili had been suffocated by algal blooms, while the number of fish present on the reef had declined dramatically. Corals provide shelter for creatures big and small, supply food for smaller fish and thereby prey for predators, play a role in erosion prevention and filter the water from toxins. They are the funamental drivers of ecosytem survival in shallow tropical water, and their loss has huge and wide reaching implications for ocean health. Research into the causes of the decline showed that the reef had been subject to dramatic blooms of algae covering the corals, blocking them from sunlight and thereby inhibiting their process of food production through photosynthetic algae living in their cells. 
Rather than introducing active measures to combat the algal growth, scientists instead monitored the eating habits of local fish with the aim of establishing which herbivorous species displayed a preference for the algae. Coincidentally, the herbivorous species were the same species that had significantly decreased in number due to overfishing. 
This observation was then used as the basis for a novel strategy: by prohibiting the fishing of specific herbivore fish species and sea urchins in the protected area, the fish were able to perform their regulatory role sufficiently by eating their preferred food: the overgrowing algae. As a result, the balance in the reef was restored while the target fish species increased their biomass by up to 135% within the next seven years. A trend shows that the effect can also be seen in the detection of bigger fish and larger schools in the area.  
During the research effort the scientisst engaged local research volunteers to partake in the surveys, acting as a sort of ‘Neighbourhood Watch’ and increasing both the research effort and management acceptance tenfold. 
As a research NGO, DMAD’s primary focus is the collection of data on our target species. In light of the data deficiency of certain marine mammal species along the Montenegrin coast, the Montenegro Dolphin Research (MDR) project was implemented in 2016 to conduct research on abundance and behaviour of cetaceans in the area. Through regular land and boat surveys, data on cetacean sightings, behaviour, environmental factors and marine traffic are collected. This allows MDR to estimate the number and change in abundance of dolphins, whale and porpoise populations over time, while environmental and traffic impact are monitored. With the goal of preserving cetacean wildlife strictly in mind, our focus is solely on understanding their situation, identifying the important habitats (e.g. high calf density suggests importance as nursing grounds) and biggest threats. As with the Kahekili Fisheries example, our intention to use this data to inform which conservation actions are necessary and will prove most beneficial to the region. 
In our next article of this series we will take a look at how the planning process is essential as a base to put successful conservation into action. The conservation work in the world’s biggest coral reef will provide us with an example of how to balance the most important aspects of conservation, while DMAD’s work on a local level in Montenegro will also be illustrated. 
Edwards, J. (2017). Let Them Eat Algae. Maui No Ka Oi Magazine. Online access: Last access: 28.09.2019