Optimal control theory is finding increased application in both theoretical and applied ecology, and it is a central element of adaptive resource management. One of the steps in an adaptive management process is to develop alternative models of system dynamics, models that are all reasonable in light of available data, but that differ substantially in their implications for optimal control of the resource. We explored how the form of the recruitment and survival functions in a general population model for ducks affected the patterns in the optimal harvest strategy, using a combination of analytical, numerical, and simulation techniques. We compared three relationships between recruitment and population density (linear, exponential, and hyperbolic) and three relationships between survival during the nonharvest season and population density (constant, logistic, and one related to the compensatory harvest mortality hypothesis). We found that the form of the component functions had a dramatic influence on the optimal harvest strategy and the ultimate equilibrium state of the system. For instance, while it is commonly assumed that a compensatory hypothesis leads to higher optimal harvest rates than an additive hypothesis, we found this to depend on the form of the recruitment function, in part because of differences in the optimal steady-state population density. This work has strong direct consequences for those developing alternative models to describe harvested systems, but it is relevant to a larger class of problems applying optimal control at the population level. Often, different functional forms will not be statistically distinguishable in the range of the data. Nevertheless, differences between the functions outside the range of the data can have an important impact on the optimal harvest strategy. Thus, development of alternative models by identifying a single functional form, then choosing different parameter combinations from extremes on the likelihood profile may end up producing alternatives that do not differ as importantly as if different functional forms had been used. We recommend that biological knowledge be used to bracket a range of possible functional forms, and robustness of conclusions be checked over this range.
Additional publication details
The importance of functional form in optimal control solutions of problems in population dynamics