Lab News & Views

Spotted grouper courtesy of O Aburto-Oropeza, first published @

Spotted grouper courtesy of O Aburto-Oropeza, first published @

Members of our team continue to share our findings with fishermen, resource managers, conservation practitioners, and other experts in the communities in the vicinity of Loreto, Espiritu Santo, and Cabo Pulmo National Parks, where we have conducted extensive ecological and social science research. In January 2014, for example, as part of an effort to report preliminary results from previous data-gathering efforts and obtain feedback from stakeholders, Mateja Nenadovic and Xavier Basurto (Duke) organized meetings with fishers, government officials, and NGO employees in four communities. Summaries from these meetings are available here.

Science translation and communication is a continuing element of this program; Heather Leslie (Brown), Kara Pellowe-Wagstaff (Brown), Mateja Nenadovic (Duke), and Xavier Basurto (Duke) engaged in similar activities in August 2013 and May 2014. Gustavo Hinojosa (CBMC) and Octavio Aburto (Scripps) regularly interact with stakeholders throughout the region, as well, through the ecological research program (see below).

DataMares is growing

If you haven’t looked at DataMares recently, now is a great time! The goal is for this data portal to serve as a hub for researchers, practitioners, and policymakers interested in the Gulf region to manage, visualize, and share data. There are ≈100 users registered and we observed an increase in the number of non-government and academic institutions utilizing information from the DataMares platform in the last six months. Register to gain full access to the metadata and datasets available to our team or contact Marcia Moreno-Baez with questions.

Mazatlan fisheries symposium draws a crowd

Octavio Aburto (Scripps) organized a symposium for the Southwestern Regional meeting of the American Fisheries Society in Mazatlan, Mexico in April 2014. Octavio, along with Marcia Moreno-Baez (Scripps), Brad Erisman (Scripps), Alexandra Sanchez (CBMC) and Mateja Nenadovic (Duke) presented papers related to our collaborative project. The session drew researchers from government, the non-profit sector, and academic institutions throughout the region.

Ecological research 

 The subtidal monitoring team is gearing up for the training course and monitoring later in Summer 2014. In Summer 2013, a total of 119 reef sites and coastal environments were surveyed around the islands, islets and mainland in the southern part of the Gulf of California. Of those, 14 were located at Loreto (85 transects), 33 at the Corredor San Cosme-Punta Mechudo (192 transects), 40 at La Paz (193 transects), 17 at Cabo Pulmo (76 transects), 8 at Cabo San Lucas (38 transects) and 7 at Marietas Islands (38 transects).   These data are relevant to the effects of changes in the management of the National Parks at Cabo Pulmo, Espirtu Santo, and Loreto, as well as the fisheries refugia recently established in the Corredor.

And on the personal front…

Welcome to new graduate students Kara Pellowe-Wagstaff (Brown, as of 9.13) and Alfredo Girón (Scripps, as of 9.14).

Best wishes to Sri Nagavarapu (Brown) and Sheila Walsh Reddy (TNC), who ended their formal engagement with the project in March 2014.

Congratulations to Octavio Aburto (Scripps) who began his faculty position at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography in July 2013.

Congratulations to Brad Erisman (Scripps) who starts a faculty position at University of Texas at Austin’s Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas in Summer 2014.

Congratulations to Shumin Zheng (Duke), who successfully defended his Masters thesis, which was co advised by Sheila Reddy and Marty Smith, in May 2014.

Good luck to Marcia Moreno-Baez (Scripps) and Katherine Siegel (Brown), who will present related research at the International Marine Conservation Congress in Scotland in August 2014. Ditto to Heather Leslie (Brown), who will present at the Ecological Society of America meeting in Sacramento in August 2014.

Have a great summer!  

P3260150A lot of research shows that temperature can strongly influence species interactions and sometimes shape the appearance and functioning of biological communities. That’s why a newly published finding by Leslie lab alum and Fulbright scholar Emily Lamb, along with Heather and Emily’s co-mentor, Dr. Jenna Shinen of the Estación Costera de Investigaciones Marinas (ECIM) in Chile, that changes in temperature did not alter the competitive balance of power between two rival species of Chilean barnacles is an ecological surprise.

Read more…


Photo from C. Herring’s article, the 2013 LEAF interns

For the last 5 years, the Rhode Island chapter of The Nature Conservancy has hosted high school students from under represented groups through the LEAF program. To learn more about the outstanding work of the collaborating interns and RI scientists, check out this video.

To learn more about LEAF in Rhode Island, check out this article by Charlotte Herring of RI TNC.

As a trustee of The Nature Conservancy’s Rhode Island chapter, I’m proud of the organization’s work to transform conservation science and practice through the LEAF program and related activities. If you would like to learn more about these opportunities or programs at Brown University related to the environment for college-aged students from under represented groups, please contact me at

And, if you are a college freshman or sophomore interested in conservation, I encourage you to check out this fantastic new program: Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program @ UW.

Click here to read the reflections of Leslie lab alums Harriet Booth and Katherine Siegel on their undergraduate engaged research projects. Harriet and Katherine, both Class of 2013, were members of the Leslie lab and participated in Heather’s upper level course on Engaged Environmental Scholarship and Communication in Spring 2013.

To learn more about the course or opportunities to participate in engaged research through the Voss Environmental Fellows program, contact Heather_Leslie(at)

2013-09-14 08.14.52Heather has written an inaugural article for the new online magazine, SNAP: Science for Nature and People. SNAP is a new collaboration between The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the Wildlife Conservation Society and the National Center for Ecology Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS), and will deliver rapid, implementable results. The goal of SNAP is to demonstrate how protecting nature can enhance human well-being.

Read her article, Ecosystem-Based Management: What We Need to Build on the Promise. 

Read more articles from the first issue… on urban conservation, preservation through an ecosystem services lens, prosperity and conservation, and what conservation looks like in Mongolia.


Geronimo and primera clase huachinango August 2013 

The fishermen motored into the beach at Agua Verde before first light. Most unloaded their catch of huachinango into the ice filled truck before I awoke, but I caught sight of one of the last pangas, manned by Geronimo Lara Collins, a sturdy man with a broad smile, as he and his boat mates were bringing their cratefuls of fish up to the bookkeeper to be weighed.

“Sixty-five kilos of fish, primera clase,” Geronimo noted proudly. The bookkeeper, Jose Manual Rondero, hauled the crate over to the back of the truck and tossed the fish into piles of crushed ice, to keep it cool till the truck traveled to Ciudad Constitution, the nearest market, the next day.

Geronimo’s girls, 9 and 5, appeared on the beach soon after, eager to bring him home after his night of fishing. He tarried a bit, glad for the shade of our palapa, the coffee, and the conversation. He and the other fishermen traded stories of last night’s run and adventures from times before, while I nibbled on my tortilla and fried egg. I understood much of what was said, but didn’t have the words to participate in the fluid, joke filled exchange.

I’ve spent the night on the beach in Agua Verde, the largest of El Corredor’s 13 communities and home to approximately 260 people. El Corredor is a 150 km stretch of coast between Loreto and La Paz, and is one of the most remote of Mexico’s Baja peninsula. Many of its beaches, islands, and rocky capes are only accessible by boat.

Agua Verde may also be reached by road, a harrowing one hour, one lane trip along the edges of steep cactus lined cliffs. That’s how I arrived, thanks to Amy Hudson Weaver, coordinator of the marine program for the Mexican conservation organization, Niparajá. Amy has worked in the Gulf of California region for the last 20 years, most often on marine protected areas and small-scale fisheries.

Recognizing the unique conservation value of El Corredor, Niparajá initiated a visioning process with the region’s fishing communities. While the biodiversity of the area’s marine environment is notable, the communities’ near exclusive reliance on marine resources and isolation from many institutional and financial supports traditionally provided by government also make this area uniquely vulnerable and appropriate for the region-wide, integrated approach that Niparajá has facilitated.

amy and octavio_agua verdeBeginning in 2008, Amy and her staff went from community to community by boat, just like the fishermen, to begin conversations about the community members’ needs, interests, and hopes for the future. These conversations led to more formal surveys in 2009, to gather information on how many people live in each place, where health centers and other public services were located, where and how people fish, and ways to sustain their fishing-dependent livelihoods. After an extensive series of dialogues within and among the communities, and technical and organizing support provided by Niparajá, the communities decided to ask the federal government to create a series of fisheries refuges (zonas de refugios) to protect the habitats on which the fish and people of the region depend.

The fishermen designed the refugias based on clear criteria that reflected protected area science and practice globally: 1) The sites are ecologically important, including processes like breeding, feeding, and reproduction; 2) The sites are actively fished; and 3) The sites are enforceable and the fishermen are committed to complying with the regulations. This last criterion eliminated many possible sites of high ecological value; if the fishermen themselves would be unable to monitor activities within the refugia and ensure that they were in fact protected, they were eliminated from consideration.

Whether you classify the effort to be ecosystem-based fisheries management, marine spatial planning or something else, what is striking to me is the goal of protecting ecologically and economically important places within the seascape of El Corredor, in order to sustain the fisheries on which the communities depend. The fishermen and Niparajá have focused almost singularly on one activity – fishing – because that’s essentially the only way that people are directly linked to the ecosystem on this remote coast. There is little land-based pollution, the communities are very small; nor coastal development, beyond the palapas that shade the fishermen in off hours. Depending on your view, this situation is either good fortune or a challenge or both.

The process of designing and declaring the refugias has taken several years, and depending on who is telling the story, is far from over. While Mexico’s federal fisheries and environment agencies declared the sites through a secretarial agreement last November, the government has since been reticent to provide needed political support and resources, and also has faced challenges from the state government, which is dominated by a different political party.

After Geronimo and his girls headed home, I spoke with another of the fishermen, Jesus Firmato Leon. After the night of fishing, he talked proudly of the zonas de refugias pesqueros that the fishermen had worked so tirelessly to establish. Drawing the coastline in the sand, he showed me where the closest refugia is located. He talked about how it protects the fish and whole ecosystem, particularly from gillnets (chinchorros) and industrial scale shrimp boats. “This is important,” Jesus concluded.

The challenge now is to maintain the momentum that the communities and their supporters have generated in the last several years, and to ensure the refugias are enforced. Then they will need to be monitored, in order to assess the ecological and institutional impacts and to guide future action. The refugias have a sunset of 5 years, which means that there is a clear opportunity to improve on the original design and to take stock of what the impacts have been.

Five years is a really short time period, both for evaluating protected area efficacy as well as for more complex ecosystem-based strategies, such as the capacity building and community organizing that have been cornerstones of Niparajá’s conservation strategy in the region. Yet we know from our own and others’ investigations of ecosystem-based planning and implementation, on the scale of three to five years, there are often intermediate changes in local institutions and ecosystems, such as increase in community cohesion, changes in the timing and spatial distribution of fishing, or improvements in the condition of target species and habitats. Such signs of progress often precede the ultimate management outcomes objectives – healthy communities and healthy ocean ecosystems – by many years. Thus keeping track of such indicators is vital in order to assess progress and guide adaptive management.IMG_5940

After my visit to Agua Verde, I’m convinced more than ever of the importance of integrating conservation strategies across local, regional and national scales in ways that benefit both nature and people. The protected areas of El Corredor wouldn’t have been declared without a concerted effort at these different institutional and geographic scales, and their ultimate success, I wager, will likely depend on continued efforts that span these levels.

Heather Leslie is a marine conservation scientist and assistant professor at Brown University. 

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)


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