Lab News & Views


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.


Project team members meet in La Paz, June 2012

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.

Espiritu Santo fishing camp at dusk

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.

Sheila, Leila, and Katherine in the field

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

This posting was written by Heather Leslie with contributions by Sheila Walsh, Katherine Siegel, and Leila Sievanen.

Congratulations to Brown University students Lee Stevens, Morgan Ivens Duran, Carmen Tubbesing, and Veronica Clarkson! Their podcast – I am a scientist - was featured on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s blog recently. This podcast was the final project for Heather Leslie’s spring 2013 course, Engaged Environmental Scholarship & Communication (ENVS 1965), which she teaches in collaboration with Marty Downs, also of Brown University.

One was picked up by, another by ‘Shark Week’! Nice work, Voss Fellows! See

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.

(c) Octavio Aburto-Oropeza

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.

Heather Leslie joined collaborators engaged in creating the first-ever ‘Ocean Health Index’ in Vancouver, BC last week. Heather was part of an interdisciplinary session describing the new tool for ocean management. See Nicola Jones’ report from Nature on the Index, and earlier coverage from Miller-McCune.

Stay tuned for a description of Heather’s talk…

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