Lab News & Views

Heather and colleagues from a diversity of academic, private, and non governmental institutions just published an article in Conservation Biology on the power of linking good stories and good science. Featuring the story of Cabo Pulmo, a marine conservation success story from Mexico’s Gulf of California, the authors reflect on the diverse roles that stories can play in advancing conservation science and practice:

“As scientists, we are part of these stories and often in the best position to tell them (Baron 2010a). Stories represent an opportunity for scientists to connect their work to the wider world, if they have the patience and creativity to write narratives that include tension (Franklin 1994; Olson 2009) and put people front and center (Kristof 2009)…

We believe there are benefits to connecting conservation science and stories, in terms of evaluating and achieving conservation effects and disseminating those outcomes to other practitioners and the public. But conservation scientists will only know this is true if they engage in these activities more frequently and with greater intent and then systematically analyze the effects. To our knowledge, this has not yet occurred.

Unsubstantiated conservation stories are a danger and could damage the credibility of conservation science or distract policy makers from the magnitude of conservation challenges, but we believe conservation science and practice would be enriched by more efforts to thoughtfully connect science and stories.”

Read more


Leslie, H. M., E. Goldman, K. M. McLeod, L. Sievanen, H. Balasubramanian, R. Cudney-Bueno, A. Feurerstein, N. Knowlton, K. Lee, R. Pollnac, and J. F. Samhouri. 2013. How good science and stories can go hand‐in‐hand. Conservation Biology. DOI: 10.1111/cobi.12080  (published online 5.21.2013)

Download this and other publications by Heather Leslie under ‘Publications’

Today, COMPASS published a commentary in PLOS Biology on the journey from science outreach to meaningful engagement. This post is part of a series of reactions, reflections, and personal experiences we hope will expand the conversation. Read the summary post here, or track the conversation by searching for #reachingoutsci

I often think of my life as a series of connected circles. I grew up in Plymouth, Massachusetts, a bit more than an hour from where I now live and teach. My children love to play in the sand and swim at the beach, just as I did, 30 years ago.

The circle I think about most spans research, teaching and practice. My students and I investigate how people are connected to coastal ecosystems, in New England as well as Mexico’s Gulf of California. We are bringing together knowledge and approaches from diverse fields, from anthropology and ecology to economics and oceanography, in order to understand the drivers of coastal ecosystem change and how we humans can be positive forces in the marine systems of which we are a part. When we can, we share what we are learning with community members, resource managers, and other decision-makers, in order to help develop more effective conservation and ocean management strategies.

For two summers during college, I studied the breeding habits of Plymouth’s beach birds, including the federally listed piping plover. As time went on, I added interpretative programs for beachgoers, and also dug more deeply into coastal policy and management. The culmination was a report I wrote in late summer 1994, summarizing the birds’ success on Plymouth Beach and also describing how beach management was aligned, or not, with state environmental laws.

Before I went back to school, I delivered a copy of the report to the town hall, as requested by my supervisor. The town had negotiated a compromise with the state that allowed continued access to the beach by SUVs. That violated the spirit if not the actual language of the law, at least in my 20-year-old idealistic field biologist’s view.

The beach and birds have managed to inflame Plymouth politicians’ passions many times, and my report was no exception. The town’s elected leaders, the Board of Selectmen, demanded I return to town to defend the report, after berating the birds, my report, and me in a public meeting. I chose not to return home, nor even to publicly comment on the matter, citing the priority of my ‘academic work.’

Would I do the same now? I probably would word the report more carefully and perhaps defend my analysis in person. Fortunately, I have had many opportunities since that summer to share my science and contribute to the public discourse. It’s always challenging, never quite comfortable, but yet the right thing for me to do. It is important to me to connect the knowledge I’m generating and teaching my students with the challenges people are wrestling with ‘in the real world.’

If the report I filed in August 1994 in Plymouth was the spark, then my July 2009 presentation to senior staff writing the National Ocean Policy was the real fire, 15 years later. I had 48 hours’ notice to prepare a presentation on the science and practice of ecosystem-based management. I was at a national meeting in Boston and had to travel directly to Washington, DC, in order to make the already scheduled meeting. Yet I had been preparing for this opportunity for a long time. I had spent the last four years writing the first book on the topic, and initiating a research program in four different countries on how the theory developed by academic scientists was or was not translating ‘in the water.’

The taxi dropped me at a side door of the NOAA DC headquarters, and I was ushered through security to wait outside a door where more than 30 senior staff from every cabinet level office plus others were convened. I’d given presentations on my science to resource managers, politicians, and members of the public many times in the 15 years since my ill fated coming out in Plymouth, but never to a group like this. I didn’t know what to expect.

This time, I was pleasantly surprised. Staff from the Department of Transportation seemed just as interested in what I had to say as those from EPA and Interior. The mood was intense, yet positive. I tag-teamed with one from one of NOAA’s chief scientists, who joined us remotely. The group peppered us with questions for close to an hour. Leaving the building less than two hours after I had entered, I was invigorated by the probing questions, and encouraged by the group’s clear commitment to proactive ocean stewardship.

Exchanges like these enable me to better understand decision-makers’ perspectives. The constraints and opportunities of crafting federal laws or local management rules are unique to a particular place and time and the more I can understand those, the more helpful I can be, as a citizen and a scientist.

I could have never imagined where my time as a beach loving field biologist would lead me, or that I now would be inspiring other college students to share their science. It is an iterative endeavor with many potential returns for science and society. With each round, I am encouraged and challenged to do better.

Heather Leslie is a marine conservation scientist and assistant professor at Brown University and lives in Providence, Rhode Island with her husband and two young children.

I visited Bodega Marine Laboratory of UC Davis last week, and had the opportunity to poke around the shoreline with marine ecologist and fellow Lubmengo Lab alum Eric Sanford. Together with quantitative ecologist Marissa Baskett and naturalist and Bodega Marine Reserve research coordinator Jackie Sones, Eric showed me some of the many field experiments underway on Bodega’s rocky shore and introduced me to the north central coast’s amazing intertidal ecosystem.

Check out Jackie’s blog, The Natural History of Bodega Head!

It wasn’t since my five years of field work on Oregon’s rocky shores that I’d had such a close look at many of the Pacific coast marine invertebrates and algae that make the intertidal zone such an amazing place to explore and do science. They are a colorful and diverse lot, particularly in comparison with our northwest Atlantic assemblage.

It was fantastic to visit with many of the faculty and students in residence at Bodega, as well as to meet many of ecologists and evolutionary biologists on UC Davis’ main campus the day before. Thanks to the Ecology & Evolution seminar series and the Lab for hosting me, and particularly to Marissa Baskett, Eric Sanford, and Steven Morgan.

Posted by Heather


View a few pictures from the field morning in Bodega


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)


Courtesy of

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.

Read more about Leila’s presentation, related to the Leslie Lab and collaborators’ research in the Gulf of California…

Read Heather’s remarks at the panel, including key questions for those working in the area of coastal resilience.

Our coastal resilience research has been featured on multiple blogs, including Sylvia Earle’s Mission Blue site and the CHANS-NET portal.







Fishermen at Los Frailles, south of Cabo Pulmo National Park

In early January 2013, we (Heather Leslie, Leila Sievanen and Mateja Nenanovic) traveled to Cabo Pulmo, on the southeastern corner of the Baja peninsula, to prepare for a series of household surveys we are conducting in the region in the coming weeks. This project, led by Heather Leslie of Brown University and Xavier Basurto of Duke University, is part of a larger NSF funded effort. The goal of this specific study is to understanding the dynamics of small scale fisheries on the gulf coast of Baja California Sur and particularly how fishermen respond to environmental change, including climatic variability, as well as institutional change, such as the establishment of protected areas.

Download the project description (in Spanish) here.

Cabo Pulmo is a town of some 100 people, and is situated between the mountains and the beach, adjacent to a national park of the same name. It is one of a handful of communities in this remote part of the Gulf coast. The park was created in 1995 because of the unique ecology of the area. The community of Cabo Pulmo, particularly members of the Castro family, and marine scientists from a nearby university (Universidad Autónoma de Baja California Sur) played an important role in the creation of the park and the continued efforts to sustain its unique ecology through active participation in park’s management. Cabo Pulmo has gained the attention of many in Mexico and the international community in the last year because of the plans to construct a mass tourism resort just north of the community and the park, that was ultimately canceled by Mexico’s President Felipe Calderón in June of 2012.

Cabo Pulmo is a conservation success. The gulf’s only coral reef is protected from fishing and other extractive activities. Populations of predatory groupers, sharks and other exploited species have rebounded. Park rules seem to be respected, and there is strong support for the park from the local to the international level. Alternative employment opportunities, particularly related to dive based tourism and sportsfishing, are available, at least for some residents.

Photo courtesy of Octavio Aburto / iLCP

When one digs into the data behind the statements above, one can find more support for the ecological observations than the social and economic ones. This is not unusual; conservation success is appropriately quantified by biological changes like increases in the number of fish or habitat type, shifts in the food web, etc. But in almost every case, such projects change human behavior as well as ecosystem structure and functioning.

With strong support from local collaborators, our work in the communities surrounding Cabo Pulmo National Park, as well as parks near Loreto and La Paz, to the north, will enable us to understand the dimensions of conservation success more fully. Where and how are people fishing, how are fishermen organized, and how have those patterns shifted with the park? What species are targeted and how do those patterns change within and among years, particularly with climate variability? Ecological responses to the park are an active area of research by many in the region; much less is known about associated economic, institutional and social changes.

    – Heather Leslie, with contributions from Leila Sievanen & Mateja Nenanovic


This project is funded by NSF’s Coupled Natural and Human Systems Program, with additional support from Brown University’s Environmental Change Initiative and The David and Lucile Packard Foundation. Contact the Lead PI, Prof. Heather Leslie, to learn more.

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.

Fishing off Isla Cerralvo, near La Paz, Mexico. The fish is one of the common sport fishing species - Pez Gallo (Nematistius pectoralis).


Members of our NSF funded research team, including Leila Sievanen and Sheila Walsh, have visited Loreto in recent months.

Read Sheila’s musings on the connections between people and nature in the Gulf here, and stay tuned for upcoming posts!

Ocean Health Index provides first global assessment combining natural and human dimensions of sustainability

Sustainable management of a huge, complex and valuable resource such as the ocean requires a comprehensive metric that did not exist until now. In the Aug. 16 edition of Nature a broad group of scientists including Heather Leslie, the Sharpe Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies and Biology, describes the Ocean Health Index. The index rates coastal places, from regions to nations, on 10 goals: artisanal fishing opportunity, biodiversity, carbon storage, clean waters, coastal livelihoods and economies, coastal protection, food provision, natural products, sense of place, and tourism and recreation.

To learn more about how the index can be applied to assess the effectiveness of ocean management and guide future stewardship efforts, read a recent Q&A with Heather and related articles from the NY Times and Nature News, or contact the authors.

View Heather’s recent video on the importance of federal research funding for marine science. Thanks to The Science Coalition for inviting this contribution and Brown University’s Office of Public Affairs and University Relations for helping to make this possible.


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