Valuing the South-east Commonwealth Marine Reserves Network

An orange seastar among deepwater corals.

IMAGE: A seastar among deepwater corals at 1115m water depth in the Huon CMR, part of the South-east Commonwealth Marine Reserves Network. Image: CSIRO.

Marine reserve networks are designed to protect biodiversity and maintain the ecological integrity of marine ecosystems, however trade-offs are involved in their design and priorities need to be identified for effective management.

The costs and benefits of different designs, and priorities for stakeholders that have direct links to the ocean are relatively easy to quantify. Less so are the costs and benefits on the general public, who may hold ‘existence values’ for assets protected by these networks.

Identifying and quantifying these existence values may highlight a public desire for management, and provide management guidance. This research will provide information to managers about public attitudes, understanding and effectiveness of communication in relation to marine reserve networks such as the South-east Commonwealth Marine Reserves (SECMR) Network. It will also develop an understanding of how coastal and marine decision makers understand and apply the economic valuation of environmental services.

VIDEO: Tour the South-east Commonwealth Marine Reserves


Decision makers and members of the public are being surveyed. In the latter case, large scale representative samples of the relevant population (from south-eastern Australia) have been surveyed. The surveys include many attitudinal questions about the respondents’ knowledge and perceptions of the SECMR (such as threats, purpose, and level of protection). These are complemented by valuation questions, using the choice experiment format. Respondents are asked to choose between hypothetical management investments intended to protect different assets to differing degrees. This process reveals which aspects of the SECMR the respondents’ value most. The effect of varying the form of presentation of information about the reserve system (including videos and expert opinion) on values is also explored.

Although a significant amount of work on identifying public values for environmental assets can potentially be used to support management, it is not clear to what extent such information is viewed as valuable by decision makers. To address this issue, in 2013, an Australia-wide survey of decision makers involved coastal zone and marine management used the Analytic Hierarchy Process to elicit the importance of different types of information used in decision making.

A lobster on the seafloor.
IMAGE: A lobster forages on deep reef in the Huon CMR. Image: IMAS

Key findings

Full public surveys are ongoing, but the results of the pilot surveys are informative. In the choice experiment, respondents revealed positive values for protection, but only if they had prior knowledge of the ecosystem attributes. This early finding suggests that the preferences revealed are not ‘constructed’ during the survey, but may in fact reflect robust, pre-existing values. Public education may extend those values to a broader section of the community. Ongoing work will reveal the extent to which these values are affected by the way information is provided in the survey.

The survey of decision makers found that biophysical criteria were used in preference to economic values (such as existence values derived from surveys) in decision making. This partially reflected the academic background of most decision makers, with relatively few having formal economics training. The survey also found that, in most cases, appropriate economic valuation information was not available for use, and decision-making processes had developed in the absence of such information. Increased availability of economic valuation data may increase its use in decision making.

Outputs and outcomes

This research is part of a large program of valuation surveys that will provide information on the values held by community members for several Australian marine ecosystems. It is building knowledge about the perceptions of the community towards marine reserve and marine assets, in terms of threats and current status. It also identifies the values held for assets protected within marine reserves, and the way that the public is prepared to trade-off different assets.


Michael Burton
(08) 6488 2531