Modelling social-ecological systems to improve Atlantic salmon conservation
The use and application of models has become widespread and indispensable in ecology and conservation science. Such models cover a broad spectrum of applications ranging from improved understanding of the likely effects of climate change on biodiversity, to supporting the decisions made in natural resource management. Given the continued rapid global loss of biodiversity, understanding the mechanisms and consequences of conservation decisions is vital for long-term sustainability. Although a number of drivers of biodiversity loss have been identified, one of the most prevalent and widespread is human exploitation of habitats and natural resources (e.g. through hunting, fishing or habitat loss). Because natural resource use is fundamentally driven by humans, accurately predicting future sustainability is reliant as much on understanding human decision-making as it is on understanding ecological dynamics themselves. Thus, the development of social-ecological models that account for the interaction between natural resource dynamics and human decision making is becoming increasingly urgent.
Cutting-edge modelling approaches have made significant progress towards modelling complex social-ecological systems, but their increased complexity poses two interlinked challenges. First, models are often difficult to communicate clearly to non-specialist audiences, such as resource managers and other stakeholders. Thus, frequently the evidence for practical uptake of many models is limited. Second, their complexity implies the need for extensive data to parameterise them effectively and to build the linkages between the ecological and the decision-making component. In terms of social-ecological management systems, while data to parameterise the ecological components are often relatively easily available from the literature, the human decision-making components are often based on limited theory and lack a general empirical basis. To maximise the adoption and use of complex social-ecological models to inform decision making, both appropriate representation of human decision-making, and effective communication, are therefore key.
This PhD project will use management of wild Atlantic salmon populations as a case study with the support of the Atlantic Salmon Trust, a key partner in the Missing Salmon Alliance ( https://missingsalmonalliance.org/ ). The flagship project of this alliance is a programme of works (Bull et al., 2022) to improve the future management of salmon populations and their habitats.
With declines in abundance, and the myriad effects of climate change, managers of wild Atlantic salmon populations face growing challenges when directing their conservation actions and deciding what management actions are most effective in a complex system with many stakeholders, different habitats and under climate change. Often the highly technical outputs from salmon ecological research and modelling do not adequately match the complexity of human decision making models. Developing interlinked social-ecological models of human decision making and ecological dynamics will not only benefit salmon management but will in more general promote the development of effective tools and guidance for helping to tackle complex environmental management challenges.
The aim of this PhD project is to build interlinked social-ecological models of salmon and the relevant stakeholders and evaluate the information needs of salmon stakeholders. The outcome of the project is a co-developed prototype decision support tool for Atlantic salmon management.