Lessons Learned from a Rock Lobster Vulnerability Assessment

By Dr. Gretta Pecl, University of Tasmania’s Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, The Australian Marine Adaptation Network

I was trained as a biologist in the traditional university-style: a focus on one-discipline. Most of my research over the 15 years since this formal training ended has focused on understanding the growth and movements of marine species. A lot involved work on cephalopods – squid, octopus and cuttlefish – creatures that are strongly influenced by environmental conditions, such as changes in water temperature.

Given my background as a marine scientist, I guess it was inevitable that I would become interested in species responses to climate change, and what we may be able to do to help best adapt to the subsequent impacts on marine ecosystems. Like many marine biologists, my existing skill set and experience was geared towards the detection of biological impacts and not really the development and assessment of adaptation options.  I discovered very quickly that adaptation research was a whole new kettle of fish!

My first opportunity to concentrate on adaptation research was through leading the East Coast Tasmanian Rock Lobster Fishery Vulnerability Assessment, a large collaborative project with an interdisciplinary team of 10 fabulous people put together by my supervisor Associate Professor Stewart Frusher.  Up until this point, my (misguided) definition of ‘interdisciplinary’ was using different scientific techniques to address a particular biological question – for example, using both microchemistry AND acoustic tracking to examine animal movement. Our team for the rock lobster project involved an oceanographer, ecologists, fisheries scientists, a population modeller, economists, a social researcher, governance experts, and resource managers. Additionally (and thankfully!), we designed it as a ‘participatory’ project as well – involving stakeholders – the fishers – from the very early design phase and liaising with them throughout the project. For some people, working with all these different groups might not be new, but for many scientists, work that is both interdisciplinary (in the true sense), and highly participatory, is a relatively new area.

The rock lobster project was a true turning point in my career because it taught me some very valuable but unexpected lessons about conducting adaptation research effectively. Many of our project team members felt the same and we’re planning to write a ‘lesson’s learned’ paper at some stage under the direction of Dr Sarah Jennings, one of the economists on our team. Until then, I’d like to share with you some of our key insights that will shape the way we tackle future problems.

Interdisciplinary research takes time, LOTS of time

Researchers usually work in disciplinary silos. We literally speak different languages, use the same words to mean different things, and often use methods that other scientists may not “understand”. If many disciplines are represented it can also be a BIG research team to work with and coordinate!

However, there are a couple of easy things you can do to make interdisciplinary research easier…..

  • Invite others to plan the menu……not arrive when dessert is in the oven! Get the whole team involved at the START and plan the work together, don’t have one or two people or disciplines plan the whole project and then instruct others what to do afterwards. Thankfully we did this one right and our project was much richer for it!
  • Budget enough TIME for the collaboration and understandings to be nurtured properly. Working in a big team where everyone has different disciplinary backgrounds takes time, a lot of time. We had a lot more meetings for the rock lobster project than I think we would have for a ‘standard’ science project.
  • Ask for clarity about terminology, approaches, purpose – but be RESPECTFULL. Absolutely ask for aspects of other disciplinary approaches or language to be explained, and be prepared to explain yours, but have some tact!

Consider engagement as your number 1 priority (or pretty close to it)

Adaptation by definition involves getting someone to do something differently, to minimise negative impacts or maximise opportunities arising from climate change. This means the people you expect to do the adapting must be on-board….preferably from the start.

We had a pretty tough gig for the rock lobster project in some respects as 80% of our fishers thought climate change was (as they put it) ‘crap’ or over-rated. Despite such first perceptions, these rock lobster fishers are engaged in their future and they participated very actively and constructively in the project. We spent time talking to fishers one-on-one, making formal and informal presentations at industry meetings, and asking for feedback and input in workshops.

There are two main challenges to engagement, getting people engaged and keeping them engaged.

There are no guarantees for what will work here but I’d suggest asking how they want to be involved would be a good start. Personally, I also believe that if people feel like they have something to contribute they are more likely to feel ownership over the outcomes. Ask your stakeholders to define a clear role for themselves to play in the project– from the start.

To keep a stakeholder group engaged throughout similar projects, you could try:

  • Giving them feedback (when & how THEY want it)
  • Highlight short-term wins as well as those another 20 years further down the track. Give them something achievable to aim for in the foreseeable future, as well as some medium and longer-term goals.
  • Avoid despair if you can. We tried, where possible, to offer up some ideas for realistic adaptation options at the same time as presenting them with the projected impacts on their industry– i.e. we presented ‘packageable solutions’ for at least some of the impacts we identified. This approach obviously has its limitations……

Present adaptation/vulnerability assessment as an opportunity

Adaptation is about IMPROVING what you do – help create the vision for how your work can be constructive for their industry or sector. I think providing a concrete example of achievable adaptation at the start is useful. If possible, find an example of something they have adapted well to in the past and highlight that they ALREADY ‘do’ adaptation.

Be aware of other important factors for your sector or group. You’re worried about climate change but they’re worried about…what? In our case it was lack of opportunity for young people to join the industry, rising fuel prices and a nasty algae-eating sea urchin that is chomping up rock lobster habitat. How does climate change fit with these other concerns? Can you put climate change into perspective – their perspective?

In summary:

  • Don’t underestimate the time interdisciplinary and participatory research takes to do properly
  • Consider engagement and consultation as your number one priority
  • Present adaptation and vulnerability assessment as opportunities – what’s in it for the people you expect to adapt