HDR Final Thesis Presentation - Miguel Frohlich - University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia

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HDR Final Thesis Presentation - Miguel Frohlich

We would like to invite you to attend the Final Thesis Presentation of Miguel Frohlich, a Doctor of Philosophy candidate in the School of Social Sciences.

Thesis Title: Towards Adaptive Coastal Management Law: Lessons from Australia and Brazil

When:  Wednesday 26 August 2020

​Where: via Zoom: https://usc-au.zoom.us/j/92450629408


Adaptive management has long been promulgated as an appropriate approach to address the complexity and dynamics of social-ecological systems. This approach acknowledges that uncertainties will always exist in relation to these systems; therefore, management should be designed and implemented as a structured and iterative learning process through which management actions are assessed, selected, implemented, monitored, evaluated, and continuously adjusted in light of new information or change. Despite its deep theoretical basis, translating adaptive management into practice has proven to be a challenge. Within this context, there have been increased efforts in recent decades to answer more specific research questions on how to eliminate constraints deriving from legal institutions and create harmony between adaptive management and the law. Yet, research on how the law may hinder or facilitate adaptive management is still limited in several natural resource management fields, such as coastal management.

Drawing on case studies of coastal erosion hotspots in Australia (Belongil Beach, located in Byron Shire, a local government area in the State of New South Wales) and Brazil (Armação Beach, located in Florianópolis, a municipality in the State of Santa Catarina), this study addresses this gap by contributing to improved knowledge on the role of law in adaptive coastal management. Four specific objectives address this overall aim: (i) to examine the relationship between adaptive management of social-ecological systems and the law; (ii) to analyse how adaptive management has been used for coastal management in the context of the selected case studies and their applicable legal frameworks for coastal management; (iii) to identify legal barriers to adaptive coastal management; and (iv) to propose directions for coupling adaptive coastal management and the law. Guided by a constructivism paradigm, research methods involved a qualitative content analysis of documents and semi-structured interviews of 50 key informants from four different stakeholder groups (government, non-government organisations, legal experts, and technical experts). Interview data was analysed in NVivo 12 using an inductive thematic coding strategy.

The results show that, while adaptive management implies embracing the uncertainty arising from social-ecological systems and, thus, requires flexibility to cope with change, the law generally aims to provide certainty, which may result in management rigidity. In the quest for certainty, legal systems often adopt a stationary view of social-ecological processes and seek finality in relation to decisions that would require continuous revisitation under adaptive management. On the other hand, increased legal flexibility may also harm adaptive management, as too much discretion may be an invitation for decision-makers to avoid or distort the approach in the face of difficult decisions. Most of the legal barriers to adaptive coastal management identified in the selected case studies were associated with this trade-off. In Byron Shire, the flexibility needed by the local council for implementing and enforcing legal provisions of a planned retreat policy has been constrained by existing use rights attached to coastal development and court agreements that ended litigation between government authorities and beachfront landowners and allowed the maintenance of various existing seawalls at Belongil Beach. In this context and in the absence of legal requirements and standards for applying adaptive management, the local council initiated a proposal (later abandoned) for the construction of a seawall as the first stage of an adaptive management scheme that did not contain monitoring protocols and triggers for progressing to the subsequent stages, including beach nourishment. In Florianópolis, vague, imprecise, and generic legal provisions have contributed to reactive rather than adaptive coastal management at Armação Beach. In the context of flexible and open-ended legislation, government entities have used their legal discretion to avoid making coastal planning, and short-term defence strategies to manage coastal erosion have proliferated in response to crises. These findings indicate that coupling adaptive management and the law requires a continuous search for balance between flexibility and certainty. As part of the efforts to achieve this balance, three directions are suggested in the context of coastal management: (i) incorporate adaptive management into coastal management legislation; (ii) tackle path dependencies caused by the law that may lead to maladaptation; and (iii) facilitate the emergence of adaptive coastal governance.

This study deepens the understanding of the role of the law in adaptive management within the field of coastal management. Its lessons contribute to the theory and practice of adaptive coastal management law and have the potential to inform further research and policy initiatives (including the reform of legal frameworks for coastal management) not only in the analysed coastal jurisdictions but also in other coastal areas around the world in the context of their legal specificities. To refine and expand the suggestions made herein, there is a need for both new conceptual research and empirical investigations to explore examples of the emergence of adaptive coastal management law and how they can be adapted and tailored to other coastal areas. This study provides a fertile entry point to this new research avenue and recommends more in-depth comparative studies to stimulate sharing of knowledge and experience between coastal jurisdictions on how to make coastal management law more adaptive to address the complexity and dynamics of coastal social-ecological systems.


Miguel F. Frohlich is an environmental planner and lawyer with over 12 years of experience working in the private and academic sector. He holds a bachelor’s degree in law, a graduate diploma in environmental studies, and a master’s degree in environmental engineering. His main research interests are governance and management of social-ecological systems, in particular, knowledge gaps in the fields of environmental planning, environmental law and policy, coastal management, climate change adaptation, and sustainability.

We look forward to seeing you there!