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Accounting for Uncertainty in Risk Assessment: Case Study of Hector's Dolphin Mortality due to Gillnet Entanglement

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Uncertainties about biological data and human effects often delay decisions on management of endangered species. Some decision makers argue that uncertainty about the risk posed to a species should lead to precautionary decisions, whereas others argue for delaying protective measures until there is strong evidence that a human activity is having a serious effect on the species. We have developed a method that incorporates uncertainty into the estimate of risk so that delays in action can be reduced or eliminated. We illustrate our method with an actual situation of a deadlock over how to manage Hector's dolphin (Cephalorhychus hectori). The management question is whether sufficient risk is posed to the dolphins by mortalities in gillnets to warrant regulating the fisheries. In our quantitative risk assessment, we use a population model that incorporates both demographic ( between-individual) and environmental ( between-year) stochasticity. We incorporate uncertainty in estimates of model parameters by repeatedly running the model for different combinations of survival and reproductive rates. Each value is selected at random from a probability distribution that represents the uncertainty in estimating that parameter. Before drawing conclusions, we perform sensitivity analyses to see whether model assumptions alter conclusions and to recommend priorities for future research. In this example, uncertainty did not alter the conclusion that there is a high risk of population decline if current levels of gillnet mortality continue. Sensitivity analyses revealed this to be a robust conclusion. Thus, our analysis removes uncertainty in the scientific data as an excuse for inaction.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Environmental Science, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand, 2: Department of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand 3: Southwest Fisheries Science Center, La Jolla, CA 92038-0271, U.S.A.

Publication date: October 1, 2000

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