Collaboration for Conservation: A model from the Maine coast

Note: This post originally appeared in the Bridgton News, February 2014.

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The Frenchman Bay Partners is a group on the coast of Maine that has adopted a collaborative approach to conservation action planning (CAP). The Partners consist of scientists, business owners, representatives from municipal and state governments, clam and mussel harvesters, aquaculturalists, fishermen, university professors, and citizens. A full list of Partners and their affiliations is available on the website.

I have been a Partner for the last three years and my role has been to study and help to strengthen their collaborative conservation efforts. During this time, I have come to recognize the value of CAP and its potential utility for organizations in the greater Lakes Region area. The planning process follows stages in which participants prioritize focal areas for conservation, identify threats to these areas, develop strategies to address threats, and set goals that allow groups to measure their progress against defined benchmarks. CAP was originally developed by organizations including the Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, and others associated with the Conservation Measures Partnership. While this process has been around for more than a decade, few groups are approaching it as a strategic collaboration and even fewer are studying the impacts of the collaboration on changes in communities and environments.

The Partners got started in 2010 with a series of meetings in which they invited people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives to become involved. They defined their mission to promote the ecological and economic resilience of the Bay. In the first phase of their planning, they held focus groups and planning sessions in which they identified their primary social and ecological focal areas, including intertidal mudflats, ocean bottom habitat, eel grass, migratory fishes, and working waterfront. For each of these areas, the group sought input from people with local and expert knowledge to understand current and historic status and threats like sources of water pollution, unsustainable but legal fishing practices, and invasive species.

In light of these threats, the group prioritized key conservation objectives. I have been most directly involved in efforts to open 610 acres of closed clam flats in the Bay.  These are potentially productive clam flats that have been closed due to pollution sources like failing septic systems, agricultural run-off, and regulated overboard discharges (which are small-scale wastewater treatment structures for individual landowners and a lower cost option than full septic replacement). The Partners are working with the Frenchman Bay Regional Shellfish Committee to find ways to open closed clam flats. We received a grant from the Maine Community Foundation to support this work and are in the process of scoping out the status of known pollution sources and the abundance of clams in the closed areas so we can prioritize where we focus our efforts. This is one of several examples of how the CAP process is helping this group make measurable progress towards accomplishing their mission.DSC_0005

CAP may use a conceptual modeling software called Miradi that is available for free online. This software has a steep learning curve and requires a lot of information at each stage, from focal area identification to threat assessment to goal setting in the creation of “results chains”. But in our experience, the opportunities in using it far outweigh these few challenges. The software can help groups strategically identify conservation priorities. It provides a focal point around which people can organize and grow their collaborations. The software also promotes learning, as people with different types of expertise can combine their knowledge about the ecology and community of a region.

My research with this group has shown that through the CAP process the Partners have improved their social networks, created shared identities in the Bay, promoted ecological learning, and found ways to resolve conflict among people who work the tides in different ways. All of these changes are helping the Partners achieve their resilience mission and promoting their ability to respond to future changes in climate and species composition. The Frenchman Bay Partners provide a model for how other groups might adopt this approach for strategic improvements to communities, economies, and ecologies.

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