Last week was the week of the Fish Moon, and phoebes and fox sparrows are beginning to arrive in New England from their wintering spots further south. Golden, purple and white crocuses are emerging in Providence’s urban gardens and river herring will return to Rhode Island rivers soon. But there are still common eider, bufflehead, brant crowding the nearshore waters of RI and further north, based on our time on the shore last week. Check out the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s Spring Almanac to learn about more about the signs of spring.
About the Lab
February 21, 2013
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Coastal communities and the coastal marine ecosystems of which they are part are in jeopardy. Superstorm Sandy was one of the most examples of the powerful effects of coastal storms on people, property, and ecosystems in coastal areas. In the face of such storms and other pressures on coastal communities, what can be done? How can we maintain the resilience of coastal communities and the ecosystems they depend on? How do we measure the factors that contribute to social and ecological resilience, and shore them up in areas where they are lacking?
The speakers in today’s AAAS session on Building Resilience of Coastal Communities to Environmental and Institutional Shocks offered a number of answers to these questions and I’m hoping that in this discussion we can tease out more, from them and from other knowledgeable folks here in the room. In the last two hours, we have heard reports of how existing social, economic, and ecological data can be integrated to measure coastal community resilience. We also have heard about other approaches to ecosystem-based science, the type of information needed to inform coastal adaptation to climate change, integrated spatial planning of coastal and ocean spaces, and other efforts underway to ensure that we truly do have both healthy oceans and healthy communities.
Why is this so important? With 53 percent of the U.S. population living in coastal counties according to the most recent census and that percentage expected to grow to 63 percent by 2020, the United States is a coastal nation. And the US is no exception in this regard. More than 40 percent of the world’s population lives in coastal areas. Coastal communities are economic engines and also highly valued for their cultural heritage and social vitality. Here in Massachusetts, in 1997, the marine economy – including fishing, tourism, transportation, and construction – generated 81,808 jobs and nearly $1.9 billion in earnings. This estimate while dated, is still impressive and does not even include the environmental benefits created by coastal wetlands that provide nursery grounds for fisheries, protection for coastal storms, and other benefits. Globally oceans are estimated to provide employment to 500 million people and generate tens of trillions of dollars in goods and services annually.
The science that our speakers have reported on represent key pieces of the emerging science of sustainability. This is an area that AAAS has long catalyzed. I’m often asked why, as someone trained as an ecologist, I have devoted so much of my energy the last five years in collecting social science data in Mexico and elsewhere. My answer is simple. If we are to manage human interactions with one another and the coastal and ocean ecosystems of which we are apart, we need to have a clear understanding of the whole picture – not just the biology, not just the economics, not just the institutions, but the whole system.
The benefits of taking this whole system, or ecosystem-based approach to science and management is the topic for another session. Here I want to focus on the science our speakers have presented, and in particular, push each of them to describe what the next steps are or should be in ensuring that they work is truly leading us towards a science and practice of coastal sustainability.
So here are my three big questions for the panel:
1. Healthy oceans contribute to healthy communities and healthy communities contribute to healthy oceans. These linked hypotheses can be tested with the type of data presented today. Do you agree with these statement, can you back it up with data, and why or why not?
2. Many of the reports we heard today deal with static data – collected at a single point in time – and yet we know coastal systems, and the people who are part of them are dynamic systems. What can we do about that – how we reconcile that reality with the limitations of data collection and scientific assessment capabilities?
3. What is next? How do you envision applying your results to advance the science of coastal sustainability? What are the gaps you hope to see filled, through your own work or others?
Remarks presented by Discussant Heather Leslie of Brown University, at the AAAS annual meeting in Boston, MA (2/17/2013)
February 17, 2013
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Hurricane Sandy was a fearsome reminder that coastal communities are highly vulnerable to extreme weather events and environmental variability and that vulnerability is only expected to increase with climate change. Brown University scientists Heather Leslie and Leila Sievanen, members of an interdisciplinary research team focused on human-environment interactions in coastal regions, discussed these challenges at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston.
They participated in a symposium titled “Building Resilience of Coastal Communities to Environmental and Institutional Shocks” on Feb. 17, 2013, at Boston’s Hynes Convention Center.
January 4, 2013
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Former Brown undergraduate Joey Bernhardt and Prof. Heather Leslie just published a synthetic review on ecological resilience to climate change in the Annual Review of Marine Science. The abstract follows; navigate to the site to see the full review, or contact Heather for a PDF.
Abstract. Ecological resilience to climate change is a combination of resistance to increasingly frequent and severe disturbances, capacity for recovery and self-organization, and ability to adapt to new conditions. Here, we focus on three broad categories of ecological properties that underlie resilience: diversity, connectivity, and adaptive capacity. Diversity increases the variety of responses to disturbance and the likelihood that species can compensate for one another. Connectivity among species, populations, and ecosystems enhances capacity for recovery by providing sources of propagules, nutrients, and biological legacies. Adaptive capacity includes a combination of phenotypic plasticity, species range shifts, and microevolution. We discuss empirical evidence for how these ecological and evolutionary mechanisms contribute to the resilience of coastal marine ecosystems following climate change–related disturbances, and how resource managers can apply this information to sustain these systems and the ecosystem services they provide.
November 29, 2012
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A team of Brown University researchers has received a $750,000 grant to design an oscillating underwater wing that can capture energy from flowing water in rivers and tidal basins. The funding comes from the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E), which funds breakthrough technologies that show fundamental technical promise but are too early for private-sector investment. “Marine and hydrokinetic energy is a vast renewable energy source,” said Shreyas Mandre, professor of engineering who will lead Brown’s effort with colleagues Kenneth Breuer in engineering and Heather Leslie in ecology and evolutionary biology. “The main advantage of hydrokinetic energy, unlike solar or wind power, is that the availability is predictable.” The wing would capture forces exerted on it by flowing water in much the same way airplane wings capture lift force from wind. “This lift force causes the hydrofoil to heave up and down periodically, and this motion can be used to generate electricity,” Mandre said. The award supports developing proof-of-concept for this potential technology, and complements current efforts to investigate the fundamental hydrodynamic mechanisms of energy conversion funded by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research.
October 18, 2012
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To help sustain ecosystems and their many benefits in coastal communities, researchers at Brown University, the University of Michigan, and Duke University have launched a new website with 65 case studies that highlight lessons learned from marine ecosystem-based management (MEBM) projects around the globe. These case studies are designed to show how MEBM can work in the real world. Link to the site at: http://webservices.itcs.umich.edu/drupal/mebm/
Read more on the lab’s research and link to papers on ecosystem-based management at:
July 12, 2012
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June 23, 2012
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Leslie Lab members Heather Leslie, Leila Sievanen, and Katherine Siegel recently traveled to La Paz, Mexico, for fieldwork and meetings with collaborators from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Centro de Biodiversidad Marina y Conservación, and The Nature Conservancy. The interdisciplinary research team, which includes experts in anthropology, ecology, economics, fisheries, and sustainability science, gathered in this vibrant fishing and tourism center in Baja California Sur to review results from their initial data collection and synthesis efforts.
Guiding questions for the research include How do ecological and institutional processes influence the adaptive capacity of small-scale fishermen in the La Paz region and other parts of the Gulf? In particular, how does climate variability influence the fisheries of the Gulf? How are these dynamics mediated by variation in the life histories of exploited species, and variation in the ways in which fishermen themselves are organized?
Dr. Leila Sievanen, postdoctoral research associate with the project, spent the last six weeks in La Paz and other parts of Baja California Sur, interviewing fishermen about how they understand and adapt to environmental change. Understanding how local people change their behavior to cope with external stresses associated with normal climate variability, and how the ability to do so varies between individuals and households, can help elucidate the existing capacity to deal with larger changes expected to occur with climate change.
Dr. Sheila Walsh has been exploring how market demand from tourism for specific sizes of fish influences fishermen’s decisions and when market demand can actually have a positive impact on fish populations and fishermen’s revenue. Sheila is now turning toward exploring another important driver in these fisheries: El Nino events. Building on the team’s previous work on how El Nino events affect single fish species and how fishermen adapt to normal environmental variability, Sheila is leading an effort to understand how the diverse multi-species fishery of the Gulf responds to El Nino events and the relative importance of biology and human decisions in influencing outcomes. The recent trip to La Paz was key for the team to synthesize existing knowledge and begin analysis on this exciting question using new data.
During this trip, Sheila also worked with The Nature Conservancy’s Baja program staff to identify the outcomes for marine ecosystems and people that they aim to achieve by launching a regional conservation and fisheries management finance initiative. To learn more about the interaction between conservation and fisheries management in the region, the team traveled to the Espiritu Santo National Park, an island off the coast of La Paz where the interacting objectives for fishermen, tourists, and nature are drawn into sharp focus.
Katherine Siegel, a rising senior at Brown University studying Environmental Science, is conducting related research for her senior thesis as part of the project. She is analyzing the relationships between fisheries regulations in the Gulf of California and the life histories and ecology of 23 commercially important species. She is interested in how scientific knowledge about the species is incorporated into national-level regulations. Her research is supported by the Voss Environmental Fellows Program.
To learn more about the project, please contact Heather_Leslie@brown.edu.
This posting was written by Heather Leslie with contributions by Sheila Walsh, Katherine Siegel, and Leila Sievanen.
February 21, 2012
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Heather Leslie, an interdisciplinary marine conservation scientist at Brown University, is investigating the importance of incorporating knowledge of humans’ varied connections to the marine environment, and integrating it into ocean policy and management. This post is based on her remarks at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Vancouver on February 18. 2012.
Leslie joined a panel of scientists who described the Ocean Health Index (OHI), the first global framework to assess the ocean’s ability to meet our current and future needs. The index encapsulates the diverse benefits people receive from the ocean, including food provision, ocean-based employment, and conservation.
The Ocean Health Index can help us to better understand and act on the knowledge of human-ocean connections. My part in this global project is focused on opportunities created by applying this tool at different geographic scales, from the local to the global. In collaboration with both natural and social science colleagues, I’m asking How does the scale at which the Ocean Health Index is applied create different opportunities for integrating knowledge of human-ocean connections?
A major innovation of our approach is that we explicitly integrate human connections to ocean ecosystems into our assessment of ocean ecosystem health. Humans are part of ocean ecosystems, everywhere. I want to take a moment to unpack this assertion, as it summarizes decades of scholarship and environmental policy and practice.
Different natural and social science fields articulate and analyze human-environment linkages in distinct ways. It is as though we had two plays being put on in tandem, on different stages, or even different theatres.
Traditionally, natural scientists have studied ocean ecosystems as systems separate from human activities and values. This is particularly the case in my own field of ecology, where we focus on the interactions among the animals and plants inhabiting a particular place, and how those relationships are influenced by climate and other environmental factors. Here the ‘actors’ on the stage are the non-human members of the ecosystem, and the plot, who eats whom, and how currents influence growth and persistence of individual animals and populations.
Even those scientists focused on resource management – including fisheries – have traditionally seen as people as largely ‘offstage’, entering the scene as harvesters removing fish from the ocean or gliding above the sea surface as tourists. If and when humans play a role in this narrative, it is largely negative, as sources of environmental impact.
In terms of the social sciences, geographers and some anthropologists, economists, and sociologists have studied connections between humans and the environment for decades. The causes and consequences of decisions by individuals and groups of people, and how laws, economic markets, social organizations, and culture shape those decisions are studied through many different disciplinary lens by social scientists. Often, however, these investigations see fish population as props and the environment as merely a stage, rather than among the actors themselves.
More recently, however, sustainability science has created a common stage on which we can understand the interactions among the human and non human members of ocean ecosystems. The diverse community of sustainability scientists includes ecologists, fisheries scientists, economists, geographers and many others at this very meeting, and has provided a more integrative lens for understanding human-environment interactions.
So what you see with the Ocean Health Index is the first attempt to pull together perhaps the greatest diversity of actors imaginable – organisms that are highly tied to particular ocean places, as well as though that migrate through; local human actors like fishermen, scuba instructors and businesspeople, as well as government entities like the navy. The index allows us to directly integrate and compare among the many, many dimensions of ocean health that these diverse actors impact and are impacted by.
There are two complementary ways this can happen:
First, knowledge of key ecological and social dynamics can more explicitly frame the boundaries of the assessment; and
Second, richer data sources about human-ocean connections – particularly qualitative data that describe human behaviors, perceptions, and preferences – may be more readily integrated into the index application.
To illustrate this first opportunity, I want to introduce you to Cabo Pulmo, a small community in Mexico. Cabo Pulmo is a town of 200 people in the southern part of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, several hours north of the mega resort town of Cabo San Lucas. This community has been the engine behind a startling change in ecosystem health just offshore, in the 72 km2 Cabo Pulmo National Park. Scientists have documented the largest relative change in fish biomass, and of top predators in particular, of any marine reserve studied in the world to date.
Historically the community primarily focused on fishing, but recognizing declines in fish abundance in the early 1990s, community members voluntarily reduced fishing effort close to town and shifted their efforts to ecotourism. Preliminary interviews with community members suggest that sense of place and food production are two key benefits provided by the marine environment, in addition to the recreation and tourism values.
The reasons for these responses to protection involve both ecological and social dynamics, including leadership within the local community and interactions between the community, adjacent towns, the Navy and other federal gov’t entities; as well as shifts in predator-prey dynamics and associated ecosystem processes. In short, mapping the spatial scales of these different processes suggests that if the community of Cabo Pulmo wanted to use our developing tool – the ocean health index – to track changes in ecosystem service provision in an integrated way through time, the extent of the region where ocean health was assessed would be larger than the town and even larger than the park.
Because of knowledge we have of ecosystem and social dynamics in Cabo Pulmo and other places throughout the peopled ocean, we have the opportunity to set the spatial boundaries in a way that’s more informed by the human-ocean ecosystem connections in this region.
Check back to learn more about the Ocean Health Index and how it may be applied in your ocean place.
November 28, 2011
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At the 2011 Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation (CERF) conference in November, Leslie Labber and Brown-MBL graduate student Sarah Corman received a student presentation award for her poster (3rd place) while former Leslie Lab RA and EEB undergraduate Joey Bernhardt (now at UBC) took home the 2nd place award in the oral presentation category. Nice work, ladies!
To learn more about Sarah’s research, see http://blogs.brown.edu/leslie-lab/research-2/salt-marsh-responses-to-climate-change-impacts/. For more on Joey’s recent work, see http://ebmtoolsdatabase.org/project/development-and-application-marine-invest-tool-natural-capital-project