Volume 160, 1 September 2015, Pages 212–225

Research article

Evaluating adaptive co-management as conservation conflict resolution: Learning from seals and salmon

  • a CSIRO Land and Water Flagship, GPO Box 2583, Brisbane, QLD, 4001, Australia
  • b NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Bush Estate, Penicuik, EH26 0QB, UK
  • c ECUS Ltd., Scion House, Stirling University Innovation Park, Stirling, FK9 4NF, UK
  • d Scottish Natural Heritage, Dingwall Business Park, Dingwall, Ross-shire, IV15 9XB, UK
  • e Lighthouse Field Station, Institute of Biological and Environmental Sciences, University of Aberdeen, Cromarty, IV11 8YL, UK
  • f Scottish Government Wildlife and Habitats Division, Area G-H93, Victoria Quay, Edinburgh, EH6 6QQ, UK
  • g Scottish Natural Heritage, Silvan House, 3rd Floor East, 231 Corstorphine Road, Edinburgh, EH12 7AT, UK
  • h Scottish Natural Heritage, Cameron House, Oban, Argyll, PA34 4AE, UK
  • i Wild Scotland, Old Town Jail, St. John Street, Stirling, FK8 1EA, UK


Adaptive co-management has emerged from conflict between seal and salmon interests.

Theoretical evaluation frameworks were tested using a participatory method.

Resource crises, legislation and opposition to seal shooting triggered the process.

Government legal power and long term resourcing is critical to conflict mitigation.

An integrated indicator framework is presented for future evaluation of conflict.


By linking iterative learning and knowledge generation with power-sharing, adaptive co-management (ACM) provides a potential solution to resolving complex social-ecological problems. In this paper we evaluate ACM as a mechanism for resolving conservation conflict using a case study in Scotland, where seal and salmon fishery stakeholders have opposing and entrenched objectives. ACM emerged in 2002, successfully resolving this long-standing conflict. Applying evaluation approaches from the literature, in 2011 we interviewed stakeholders to characterise the evolution of ACM, and factors associated with its success over 10 years. In common with other ACM cases, triggers for the process were shifts in slow variables controlling the system (seal and salmon abundance, public perceptions of seal shooting), and exogenous shocks (changes in legal mandates, a seal disease outbreak). Also typical of ACM, three phases of evolution were evident: emerging local leadership preparing the system for change, a policy window of opportunity, and stakeholder partnerships building the resilience of the system. Parameters maintaining ACM were legal mechanisms and structures, legal power held by government, and the willingness of all stakeholders to reach a compromise and experiment with an alternative governance approach. Results highlighted the critical role of government power and support in resolving conservation conflict, which may constrain the extent of local stakeholder-driven ACM. The evaluation also demonstrated how, following perceived success, the trajectory of ACM has shifted to a ‘stakeholder apathy’ phase, with declining leadership, knowledge exchange, stakeholder engagement, and system resilience. We discuss remedial actions required to revive the process, and the importance of long term government resourcing and alternative financing schemes for successful conflict resolution. Based on the results we present a generic indicator framework and participatory method for the longitudinal evaluation of ACM applied to conservation conflict resolution.


  • Evaluation;
  • Governance;
  • Indicators;
  • Livelihoods;
  • Monitoring;
  • Resilience;
  • Wildlife conflict

1. Introduction

Adaptive co-management (ACM) is a novel form of environmental governance that can enhance social-ecological systems' resilience and adaptability to uncertainty and change (Armitage et al., 2009 and Plummer et al., 2012). In contrast to conventional, centralised ‘command-and-control' approaches, it combines the iterative learning, knowledge generation and problem-solving of adaptive management with the stakeholder power-sharing and conflict resolution of co-management (Olsson et al., 2004a, Folke et al., 2005, Armitage et al., 2007 and Fabricius and Currie, 2015). Folke et al. (2002, p. 8) broadly define ACM as “a process by which institutional arrangements and ecological knowledge are tested and revised in a dynamic, ongoing, self-organized process of trial-and-error”, which is known to evolve through stages (Olsson et al., 2004b, Berkes et al., 2007 and Plummer and Baird, 2013).

One context where the utility of ACM has not been assessed is conservation conflict (Butler, 2011), which occurs when conservation interests wish to protect wildlife species that impact the livelihoods of others (Redpath et al., 2013). Examples include predation of livestock (e.g. Butler, 2000 and Butler et al., 2014) or game (e.g. Graham et al., 2005 and White et al., 2009) by protected predators, and retaliatory killing by the affected stakeholders. These conflicts are often intractable because actors' worldviews and values are polarised and have become entrenched (Young et al., 2010). Eliminating conflict permanently is unlikely, but reducing the negative impacts on species and stakeholders by finding compromises is sometimes feasible (Colyvan and Regan, 2011). Designing mechanisms that can achieve sustained conflict resolution is an evolving field of research (Dickman, 2010; Redpath et al., 2013). Early evidence suggests that keys to success are ongoing collaborative decision-making processes which involve all stakeholders equitably (Young et al., 2013a), trial innovative ideas, and include evaluation to provide learning (Walkerden, 2005 and Redpath et al., 2013).

To understand the value of ACM for conservation conflict resolution requires systematic evaluation of case studies. Plummer and Armitage (2007) proposed a generic framework to evaluate ACM interventions based on outcome parameters. Armitage et al. (2009) also suggested 10 pre-conditions that must exist for successful ACM to be maintained. These approaches illustrate the necessity for measuring progress towards intended outcomes, plus assessing whether the outcomes have created pre-conditions for the collaborative process to continue (Innes and Booher, 1999 and Berkes et al., 2007). While some methods have been designed to monitor components of ACM (e.g. Cundill and Fabricius, 2010, Smedstad and Gosnell, 2013 and Fabricius and Currie, 2015), none have explicitly integrated the parameters developed by Plummer and Armitage (2007) and Armitage et al. (2009), nor calibrated them against successful ACM interventions (Plummer et al., 2012).

In this paper we investigate the characteristics of successful ACM in the context of a conservation conflict. We use a case study in Scotland, the Moray Firth Seal Management Plan (MFSMP), which was launched in 2005 as a pilot initiative to balance conflicting stakeholder interests in seal conservation and salmon fisheries (Butler et al., 2008). Following its perceived success, the model is being scaled-out through national legislation (The Scottish Government, 2014).