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By signing the Rio Convention on environment and sustainable development, Australia has made a long-term commitment to the conservation of our unique flora and fauna. This includes the diverse, but often ignored small animals and plants living on and adjacent to our coasts. Many of these animals and plants have “broadcast” fertilization, dispersive larvae and very variable survival in the plankton. Patchy patterns of arrival of new animals into coastal habitats, along with varied interactions among species and between organisms and their surrounding environment, lead to characteristic patterns of coastal biodiversity. This biodiversity is patchy from place to place and variable from time to time in interactive and unpredictable ways. Conserving this biodiversity depends on throwing away old-fashioned, irrelevant ideas (such as the balance of nature) and recognising ecological realism. Community “monitoring” is becoming an important component of conservation in many parts of Australia. There has, however, been little serious thought about what data are collected in “monitoring” programmes, what they might mean or what they might be used for. Ecological data collected without clear hypotheses are generally pointless, or cannot be used for the purpose intended. Data required to measure biodiversity, or changes to biodiversity in such complex, variable systems as coastal habitats, cannot be collected and interpreted without considerable knowledge and expertise of sampling design, ecological theory and modern analytical methodologies. This means that they cannot usually be collected by amateurs or scientists not trained in and practising this type of ecology. It is sometimes suggested that ecological “indicators” be monitored as a means of simplifying the types of data collected, but it is seldom clear what it is that most indicators are supposed to indicate. Conservation of coastal habitats is not likely to progress by handing over measurement of their well-being or potential degradation to those ill-equipped to make such measurements. There are well-documented examples of the collection of useless data by non-trained observers, when the data being collected were much simpler than those needed to inform about coastal habitats. What is needed is a proper partnership between the community, who have a primary voice in what level of conservation is needed and what should form the priorities and the scientists, whose expertise and skills are needed to ensure that conservation is, indeed, occurring. These different roles are not interchangeable. Confusion between them will be to the continued detriment of our unique coastal habitats.

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