Yung En Chee

Ecological Impact Award—Practitioners and Researchers Working Together

Sacha Jellinek, Chloe Sato and Samantha Lloyd (ESA Practitioner Engagement Working Group)

The ESA Practitioner Engagement Working Group (PEWG) seeks to connect with professionals engaged in managing, planning and/or researching the natural environment and facilitate the sharing of ideas and opportunities for collaboration between researchers, students and practitioners. Links between research and on-ground works are seldom acknowledged or communicated, even though collaborations between researchers and practitioners are vital to ensure science continues to inform policy and on-ground practice. Communicating the outcomes of these partnerships is often challenging but can be hugely beneficial to ensure the best possible conservation outcomes in land management and restoration projects. 

This year’s symposia at the Ecological Society of Australia’s annual conference showcases collaborative projects between researchers and practitioners, aimed at better understanding the mechanisms or processes that drive ecological patterns in altered environments. Collaborations included work on threatened species management between government agencies and researchers; workshops to engage communities and landholders with fire management tools; community based restoration monitoring programs supported by researchers and government agencies; and modelling to inform more effective management of offset areas. The symposia also showcased the 2020 Ecological Impact Award winner, an initiative driven by the PEWG to promote innovative and successful practitioner-researcher collaborations. Congratulations to Yung En Chee (University of Melbourne), Rhys Coleman (Melbourne Water), Sharyn RossRakesh (Melbourne Water), Nick Bond (LaTrobe University) and Chris Walsh (University of Melbourne) for their award winning project (presented here in this issue of the Bulletin). 

Congratulations are also extended to Romina Rader (University of New England) and Maurizio Rocchetti (Costa Group) for their Highly Commended project, which aims to better understand the efficiency of pollinators for berry productivity. 

 “…The Ecological Impact Award…, an initiative driven by the PEWG to promote innovative and successful practitioner-researcher collaborations” 

 The PEWG sees this symposia as an opportunity for greater collaboration between practitioners and researchers into the future. 

For more information about the ESA Practitioner Engagement Working Group, and the Ecological Impact Award, contact Sacha Jellinek ( 

You can read about the Ecological Impact Award-winning research below. 

Ecological modelling and waterway management prioritisation in greater Melbourne – Winner of the 2020 ESA Ecological Impact Award

Yung En Chee (1), Rhys Coleman (2), Sharyn Ross-Rakesh (2), Nick Bond (3) and Chris Walsh (1) 

(1) Waterway Ecosystem Research Group, School of Ecosystem and Forest Sciences, The University of Melbourne 

(2) Melbourne Water 

(3) Centre for Freshwater Ecosystems, School of Life Sciences, La Trobe University 

Melbourne’s waterways, like those of cities around the world, face growing threats from urban growth and climate change. Sound knowledge of current ecological status, key threats, likely future condition, and management actions most likely to protect or improve the health of waterways is vital. Developing this capacity is challenging as greater Melbourne includes more than 20,000 kilometres of waterways in catchments varying substantially in climate, landform and land use. 

Through a long-term and deeply collaborative research-practice partnership, Melbourne Water, the Waterway Ecosystem Research Group (University of Melbourne), and the Centre for Freshwater Ecosystems (La Trobe University) co-developed a suite of tools and a systematic, strategic approach to support Melbourne’s Healthy Waterways Strategy (HWS) development process. These tools included: i) a high-resolution GIS stream network and data for mapping and describing environmental conditions; ii) habitat suitability models for 59 aquatic macroinvertebrate families, 13 native fish species and platypus, using over 20 years of biological monitoring data; and iii) spatial prioritisation analysis using conservation planning software tool, Zonation. 

These tools allowed us to estimate biodiversity values at more than 8,000 stream reaches across the region, make predictions of how those values are likely to change under projected future scenarios of urban growth and climate change, and quantify expected benefits of specific management actions or combinations of actions. By considering expected benefit (computed for all modelled taxa) along with reach-specific costs associated with candidate actions, we identified the most cost-effective management action at any given reach. We then analysed this map of cost-effective actions with spatial conservation prioritisation software (Zonation) to rank all assessed reaches (more than 8,000) showing where we should optimally act first to protect and improve stream biodiversity. 

A summary of the advances and benefits of Melbourne’s new waterway prioritisation process (right column) in compari-son to previous approaches for Waterway Strategy development (left column). 

Model predictions, scenario analyses and mapped outputs were shared at the multiple community co-design workshops that Melbourne Water ran for the Werribee, Maribyrnong, Yarra, Dandenong and Westernport catchments. These catchment-specific maps of threats, biodiversity patterns and impacts of what-if scenarios provided insights that helped augment local knowledge and expertise as stakeholders discussed goals and threats, and formulated actions and targets. 

Our maps of the most cost-effective action at each reach and Zonation ranking of reaches maximising the biodiversity benefit arising from those actions, constituted our systematic, whole-of-landscape scale prioritisation of management actions. Priority reaches and actions were sense checked by Melbourne Water staff. They were then compared and aligned with community action proposals and extensive feedback that included more than 1,800 comments. The entire process was overseen by a Science Panel and a Regional Leadership Group comprising representatives from key Healthy Waterways Strategy delivery partners. 

The Strategy waterway prioritisation process represented a range of advances in scientific rigour, transparency, and community engagement as summarised in the accompanying table. 

Breaking with past conventions and practices to adopt new methods requires a major shift in mindset, understanding and skills and can be unsettling. The use of models and complex analyses can lead to perceptions of a ‘black box’. Co-developing and iteratively refining these tools within our research-practice partnership gave us a foundation of trust and goodwill. With an understanding of Melbourne Water goals, operating context, key obligations and constraints, we devised ways of conveying the benefits of the new approach that would be most meaningful to stakeholders both within and external to Melbourne Water. We worked hard to overcome scepticism by listening carefully and responding to concerns, anticipating and answering objections, and being upfront about limitations. This sustained process of engagement and collaborative learning eventually helped win acceptance of the suite of tools for waterway action prioritisation, quantitative target-setting and ongoing support of the Strategy monitoring, evaluation, reporting and improvement process. 

For more information, contact Yung En Chee: 

Greater Melbourne consists of more than 20,000 kilometres of waterways, which are facing growing threats from urban growth and climate change. Credit: Yung En Chee.

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