One thing that can be said with certainty about the Great Lakes ecosystem, is that it is in a constant state of change. The primary question for NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) is, how can we most effectively research and manage the lakes given their changing biological, physical, and chemical conditions? The answer, in part, is to build our capabilities in taking an integrated, science-based adaptive management approach in the conduct of research and ecosystem management.
Adaptive management—a concept that has been evolving in the Great Lakes region since enactment of the 1972 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA)—integrates well-defined feedback loops in the process of doing science-based research and management, thus providing a way to respond to ecosystem changes. The ultimate goal of using an adaptive approach is to continually evolve the research and management of the Great Lakes ecosystem while accounting for uncertainty in the conduct of science. Though it could be said that adaptive management is a common sense, verify as you go approach, in order to render a significant impact in the mitigation of problems/stressors threatening the Great Lakes, an integrated, science-based, adaptive management approach must be purposefully executed and institutionalized on a long-term basis with reliable funding.
So what do we really mean by taking a science-based, adaptive management approach? And how are we doing it? The International Joint Commission (IJC), established by the United States and Canada to prevent and resolve disputes about the use and quality of the Great Lakes boundary waters, has played an important role in shaping adaptive management as an approach to protect and restore the Great Lakes. Through the lens of the IJC, “Adaptive management is a planning process that provides a structured, iterative approach for improving actions through long-term monitoring, modelling, and assessment. Adaptive management allows decisions to be reviewed, adjusted, and revised as new information and knowledge becomes available, and/or as conditions change.” (Upper Great Lakes Lakes Study, IJC 2012). There is growing awareness that we need to be adaptive in our approach given that managed resources will always change as a result of human intervention, that surprises are inevitable, and that new uncertainties will emerge. Adaptive management should not be considered a ‘trial and error’ process but rather one that is built on “learning while doing.” (Williams et al., 2007).
At GLERL, we are striving to integrate adaptive management in a deliberate way in the design, conduct, and overall management of our research projects. On the most basic level, adaptive management provides a framework upon which research is structured, using measurable goals and objectives to assess and evaluate outcomes with each cycle of research. The role that adaptive management is expected to play in GLERL research is delineated in GLERL’s 2016 Strategic Plan (pp. 17-23). This approach is exemplified by research on the causes and impacts of harmful algal blooms (HABs) and hypoxia (a condition when oxygen levels within the water become extremely low) in western Lake Erie as conducted by GLERL, in conjunction with Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research (CIGLR, formerly CILER). Further information on GLERL’s HABs and hypoxia research is available on GLERL’s webpage, Great Lakes HABs and Hypoxia.
We view the process of adaptive management guiding Great Lakes scientific research and ecosystem management as a coupled feedback loop (see below graphic, Adaptive Integrated Research Framework) driven by water quality/quantity problems, stakeholder engagement, and existing policy (e.g., NOAA/GLERL mission and vision, 2012 amended GLWQA). As an example, it has been well established that HABs and hypoxia threaten the Great Lakes ecosystem and ecological services provided by the lakes as well as pose human health risks and socio-economic impacts. Importantly, stakeholder engagement continues to play a key role in articulating these problems and guiding priorities in the conduct of HABs/hypoxia research, such as the following:
- Reducing nutrient loading of phosphorus and nitrogen.
- Understanding impacts of HABs on food web structure and potential impacts on fisheries, increased water treatment costs, lost opportunity costs for recreation, and shoreline property values.
- Understanding toxicity level impacts on human health.
The next step in an adaptive management approach is formulating research goals, objectives and questions—based on identified priorities—that are measurable and can result, in part, from stakeholder engagement. A measurable goal established for HABs research and management is a 40 percent target reduction in spring loads of phosphorus to minimize the size and impact HABs in western Lake Erie. Fundamental to an adaptive management approach is the measurement of progress toward reaching the research and management goals and making adjustments accordingly.
Another important driver in the adaptive management cycle is feedback based on the assessment and evaluation of research and management results and other outcomes. The transfer of results/outcomes to the scientists, managers, as well as stakeholders, provides an opportunity for the adaptive approach to refine and improve the next round of HABs research. For example, recent HABs research has pointed to nitrogen as an important driver of bloom toxicity; these findings have played an important role in shaping GLERL’s future research agenda.
In our ongoing commitment to serve the Great Lakes community through our research, GLERL’s efforts can only be strengthened through adaptive management by ensuring that stakeholders—such as water intake managers, fisheries managers, land use managers, public health agencies, environmental groups, and the general public—are given the products and tools needed to mitigate the sources and impacts related to HABs and hypoxia (see story on hypoxia stakeholder workshop). This approach holds great promise in improving the ecological as well as economic health of the Great Lakes region.
Deborah H. Lee, PE, PH, D.WRE
Director, NOAA GLERL