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.

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!

On October 5, 2011, three members of our group – Marcy Cockrell, Kara Woo, and Bridgette Black – attended the second annual research conference held by the Research Association for Research on the Gulf of Maine (RARGOM) in Portsmouth, NH. The major theme for the conference was “The nexus between climate change and marine spatial planning.” Below are some thoughts from the meeting.

“More than the hammers and nails”

by Marcy Cockrell

While listening to the talks at the RARGOM conference, it was certainly clear that there is a lot of exciting research happening on coastal and marine spatial planning in the Gulf of Maine! Speaker topics ranged from creating long-term study areas for habitat restoration in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, to modeling the trade-offs and dynamics of human-nature connections, to speaking effectively about science to a lay audience.

While the talks covered a wide range of topics, there was one idea that, at least at some level, connected all of them – we need to include social and economic considerations and engage the stakeholders when developing coastal and marine spatial planning (CMSP), since CMSP is ultimately about managing the activities of people. CMSP should be adaptive and flexible, stakeholder driven, and should address social and economic, as well as environmental, concerns. Other major topics that pervaded were the impacts and scale of climate change, and developing ecosystem-scale research plans.

Key questions posed included: How do we prepare for a future with rapidly shifting baselines? How do we plan when ecosystems and people don’t behave as expected? What do the stakeholders, and the greater population, want out of marine spatial planning and what does it mean to them?

Ru Morrison, of the Northeastern Regional Association of Coastal Ocean Observing Systems, summed it up nicely when he stated: “What does CSMP mean for the greater population? As with building a house, people don’t talk about the hammers and nails, they talk about the finished house they are going to live in.”

What we do with the hammers and nails of science, management, and policy is certainly important, but we also need to take care to think about the finished product, the whole CMSP house, that is presented to the greater population. It will be exciting to see what develops with CMSP in the Gulf of Maine in the coming years!

“Expanding the toolbox for marine spatial planning”

by Kara Woo

Several presenters at the RARGOM Annual Science Meeting described projects aimed at improving decision support tools for coastal and marine spatial planning.  The Marine Integrated Decision Analysis System (MIDAS) for the Massachusetts Ocean Partnership is one such tool. Built around the Multi-scale Integrated Model of Ecosystem Services (MIMES) modeling framework, MIDAS allows users to easily visualize management scenarios and tradeoffs. The Northeast Ocean Data Portal is another resource for those involved in CMSP in the northeastern United States that provides maps, models, and other data to inform management.

As useful as they are, these tools are of less interest to the broader public than the house we build with them, said Ru Morrison of the Northeastern Regional Association of Coastal Ocean Observing Systems (NERACOOS). Many other speakers at the conference addressed stakeholder involvement in marine spatial planning. It will be interesting to see how stakeholders engage with these new resources, and how the tools themselves evolve in order to facilitate stakeholder involvement.

“New Tools Inform Ecosystem-Based Management in Light of Climate Change”

by Bridgette Black

Many of the conference presentations focused on integrated approaches – across disciplines, professional networks, and the diverse ways that humans are connected to marine ecosystems.

Suchi Gopal of Boston University introduced one such integrated approach, the MIMES-MIDAS modeling framework. In assessing the linkages between humans and other components of ocean ecosystems, a number of questions arise: How do we incorporate non-monetary ecosystem services? What does marine spatial planning mean to different and diverse stakeholders? What weight should we give certain system linkages? Gopal called the MIMES-MIDAS tool a “facebook for marine spatial planning,” because it can help elicit diverse stakeholders’ views on ocean activities and management.  It should be ready for public use by December 2011.

Later, Michelle LaRocco spoke about how concerns of different stakeholders regarding climate change may be incorporated into CMSP. Informants from many industries she surveyed were at least somewhat concerned about sea level rise and global warming. However, they were more concerned regarding the limits and boundaries CMSP could place on their activities. Michelle argued that as managers we have to make the benefits of CMSP tangible, and create collaborative opportunities for scientists, managers, and stakeholders to work together.

Towards the end of the conference, presentations focused on engaging the community outside of the scientific and management sector. MTPI, a tidal power initiative in Maine, is a great example of a project that aims to incorporate community members to the utmost. Initially, interviews with fishermen were conducted in order to gauge support for the project. It was found that fishermen and other community stakeholders were extremely interested in being involved in the project. Thus, the initiative now incorporates stakeholder meeting and community councils into the project framework in order to ensure the connection between social and ecological system. Now the members of the community feel an ownership for the project and hope to have continued involvement.

Michael Orbach of Duke, a keynote speaker, emphasized the importance of understanding social dynamics around CMSP. CMSP, he argued, is all about allocation, about who gets what. Thus, while ecological science is important, the importance of social and institutional knowledge cannot be understated. The biophysical, the human, and the institutional combine to create a “total ecology” that must be understood in order to move forward in the implementation of CMSP.

MPAs have been an integral component of local, national, and international strategies for fisheries management and biodiversity conservation for decades, yet many aspects of MPA implementation and impacts remain uncertain.  WWF is hosting a one-day international symposium on November 5, where we will review knowledge of Marine Protected Areas as a foundation for both science-based policy and policy-relevant science.

As the conservation community strives to ensure ecological and social effectiveness of MPAs, WWF will promote a robust discussion on what works, what doesn’t and why.  We will host leading scholars and practitioners in the field to both provide insights for conservation action and identify gaps in areas requiring further research. We will delve into and illuminate areas of uncertainty on three major topics: 1) ecological frontiers such as spillover, connectivity, and MPAs for pelagic species; 2) social frontiers, such as the role of governance in implementation and socioeconomic impacts of MPAs; and 3) opportunities to push the frontiers of MPA science through impact evaluation and other novel research methods.

The symposium will provide state-of-the-art scientific information on a core marine conservation strategy, and result in follow-up papers and policy briefs summarizing key insights, knowledge gaps, and rules of thumb for moving forward despite those gaps.

For registration details and more information please visit:

Conservation International just released 3 major publications on a solution to the global ocean crisis. Produced by the Science-to-Action partnership, which includes more than 75 organizations led by Conservation International’s Marine Management Area Science Program, the publications are based on 5 years of natural and social science research in over 70 marine managed areas in 23 countries.

Drawing on the results of more than 50 studies, the Science-to-Action partnership offers recommendations for successful implementation of marine managed areas (MMAs) to maximize the benefits to people and nature. The findings and recommendations are presented in 3 reader-friendly, richly illustrated booklets:

  • People and Oceans explores the role of people in marine managed areas, including the human well-being benefits and challenges of MMAs, and how socioeconomic conditions affect success.
  • Living with the Sea examines the role of MMAs in restoring and sustaining healthy oceans, particularly the importance of local management efforts.

These and other publications may be downloaded at

The Nature Conservancy recently released its NW Atlantic Marine Ecoregional Assessment’s Phase I report. Heather Leslie was one of three external scientist engaged in the process, along with Peter Auster of University of Connecticut and Les Kaufman of Boston University. TNC is currently working on Phase II of the assessment, which involves setting priorities for their internal conservation activities. See

Richard Pollnac and colleagues just published a paper in PNAS on how the ecological performance of 56 marine reserves throughout the Philippines, Caribbean, and Western Indian Ocean is related to both reserve design features and the socioeconomic characteristics in associated coastal communities. As the authors demonstrate, comparative research of this type is important for uncovering the complexities surrounding human dimensions of marine reserves and improving reserve management.