Experimental or precautionary? Adaptive management over a range of time horizons

Authors

  • Cindy E Hauser,

    Corresponding author
    1. Australian Centre of Excellence for Risk Analysis, School of Botany, University of Melbourne VIC 3010 Australia;
    2. The Ecology Centre, School of Integrative Biology, University of Queensland, St Lucia QLD 4072 Australia; and
    3. Department of Mathematics, University of Queensland, St Lucia QLD 4072 Australia
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  • Hugh P Possingham

    1. The Ecology Centre, School of Integrative Biology, University of Queensland, St Lucia QLD 4072 Australia; and
    2. Department of Mathematics, University of Queensland, St Lucia QLD 4072 Australia
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Correspondence author. E-mail: chauser@unimelb.edu.au

Summary

  • 1Many studies of adaptive harvest management already exist in the literature, but most (if not all) use long, sometimes infinite, time horizons. Such long-term objectives provide an opportunity to manage experimentally, so that poorly understood dynamics are learned and any returns sacrificed for experimentation are repaid by improved management over the remaining time horizon.
  • 2However, a manager is unlikely to weight outcomes in the distant future equally against outcomes in the present. Furthermore, the most appropriate model of system dynamics may not remain constant over the time-frame required to experiment, learn and improve management. In these cases the use of discounting and/or a finite time horizon fit the manager's assumptions and goals more effectively, and the value of experimentation is likely to be diminished.
  • 3In this paper we construct a simple model of a hypothetical population and compare optimal passive and active adaptive harvest strategies over a range of time horizons. This allows us to determine the optimal level of experimentation for short-, medium- and long-term goals.
  • 4We discover that the optimal active adaptive harvest strategy may be precautionary over short to medium time horizons, rather than experimental. That is, an action with known moderate benefits is preferred over an action with uncertain but marginally larger expected benefits. This runs counter to the widespread assumption in the adaptive management literature that incorporating learning into an optimization of management will encourage experimentation.
  • 5Synthesis and applications. The general results of this paper have potential application to any environmental management problem where adaptive management might be applied; for example, conservation, pest control, harvesting and management of water flows. We examine adaptive management over a range of finite time horizons to reflect a variety of possible management goals and assumptions. Our simple example demonstrates that in the face of model uncertainty, the management strategy that maximizes benefits does not necessarily include deliberate experimentation and learning. Optimal active adaptive management weighs experimentation against all its potential consequences, and this can yield a precautionary approach.

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