Geronimo and primera clase huachinangoMeeting human needs while sustaining ecosystems and the benefits they provide is a global challenge. Coastal marine systems present a particularly important case, given that >50% of the world’s population lives within 100 km of the coast and fisheries are the primary source of protein for >1 billion people worldwide. Our integrative analysis here yields an understanding of the sustainability of coupled social-ecological systems that is quite distinct from that provided by either the biophysical or the social sciences alone and that illustrates the feasibility and value of operationalizing the social-ecological systems framework for comparative analyses of coupled systems, particularly in data-poor and developing nation settings.

This is the first step in what we hope will be an iterative improvement of quantitative, cross region comparisons guided by Ostrom’s social-ecological systems framework. Please contact Heather at heather.m.leslie(at) to talk about how we can work together on this important effort.

Read a summary of Leslie, Basurto and colleagues’ work

Read the full open-access paper in PNAS

Heather and former Brown undergraduate Megan Palmer (Class of 2014) just published an article in Marine Technology Society Journal on the value of taking an ecosystem services approach to assessing the impacts of tidal energy development. The results are described here, and also were picked up by RI NPR!

One of our youngest lab members, distracted by barnacles (who can blame him!) while monitoring our mussel predation experiment.

One of our youngest lab members, distracted by barnacles (who can blame him!) while monitoring our mussel predation experiment.

Leslie Lab members published results from a multi year study at 18 rocky shore sites from Maine to New York state in Ecosphere this week.

Mussels could be the perfect ‘sentinel’ species to signal the health of coastal ecosystems. But a new study of blue mussels in estuary ecosystems along 600 kilometers of coastline in the Northeast uncovered three key mysteries that will have to be solved first.

Read more…

Download the paper…

In this age of ever increasing technological capacity and the global reach of economies, political institutions, and yes, disease and other environmental harms, we scientists do not have all the answers to the question every citizen asks: What shall we do? We do, however, know a lot that can help.

In the comment published today in Nature by Heather Tallis and 239 other scientists (including myself), we scientists have come together to urge that our field of conservation science moves beyond the question and focus on finding solutions – many solutions, not one solution – to sustain both people and nature on our planet.

As a founding faculty Fellow of the Institute for the Study of Environment and Society at Brown University, I’m participating in an exciting effort to do exactly this. Institute faculty are creating new knowledge of how social-ecological systems work and translating that science in ways that speak to decision makers at every level, from the local to global. Brown students mentored by sociologist Timmons Roberts are crafting a strategy to help implement the Resilient Rhode Island Act that some of them helped draft last spring. Students mentored by ecologist Kate Smith are investigating human and wildlife diseases in Rhode Island and around the world, and their implications for conservation and human health.  Microbial ecologist Jeremy Rich is diving to the depths of the tropical Pacific later this week to study the microbes that the form the base of the food web in a marine ecosystem humans first visited less than 40 years ago: hydrothermal vents. And in my own research group, we are exploring how diversity in the ecosystems and social organizations related to marine fisheries can contribute to the resilience of coupled systems to climate variability and change.

I believe that the research that my colleagues and I are engaged in all fall under the rubric of conservation science – science to inform actions to sustain life on earth – and yet not all of us consider ourselves conservation scientists, and certainly we are not all motivated by the same values or scientific objectives. This diversity of scientific perspectives and worldviews is critical for conservation to succeed, as we note in the Nature piece.

We need to ensure that the dialogue and the doing of conservation science welcomes the full diversity of genders, ethnicities, worldviews, and cultures in whose name we are generating this science. My hope is that the Nature piece encourages all us to think harder about how to do this well, and to get down to work.

I look forward to sharing my own efforts in future posts and encourage you to do the same, at or via twitter at #diverseconservation.

LeilaSievanen(smallest)Environmental anthropologist Dr. Leila Sievanen, formerly a Leslie Lab postdoc, just published an article in Maritime Studies based on research conducted with Heather and others in Baja California Sur, Mexico.

Citation: Sievanen, L. 2014. How do small-scale fishers adapt to environmental variability? Lessons from Baja California Sur, Mexico. Maritime Studies 13:9.

The abstract follows:

Many fisheries stocks and the livelihoods of those who make their living from fishing are in decline, and these declines are exacerbated by uncertainties associated with increased climate variability and change. Social scientists have long documented the importance of mobility and diversification in reducing the risk and uncertainty associated with climate variability, particularly in the context of small-scale fishing. However, it is unclear how these traditional mechanisms are buffering fishers againstthe varied stressors they currently face, including those associated with environmental variability. This paper examines how fishers on the southern gulf coast of the Mexican state of Baja California Sur perceive and respond to stressors associated with normal environmental variability, how their ability to adapt is spatially distributed, and what threats they perceive to their continued ability to adapt. Understanding the adaptation strategies and everyday vulnerabilities that fishers face can elucidate problems associated with current fisheries management and the underlying factors that cause vulnerability, and also help decision makers, including fishers themselves, develop more effective adaptation strategies in the face of climate change.

Heather_Leslie_headshot_aug09Heather Leslie, assistant professor of environmental studies and biology, says it’s a mistake to assume market forces and sustainability must always be at loggerheads. In a recently published paper in Ecological Applications, Leslie and a group of researchers showed that small-scale fisheries near La Paz, Mexico, could earn a premium for fish that fit nicely on a plate, leaving larger fish to sustain the population. Read more….

Click here to download the paper!

Read the Q & A with lead author and former Leslie lab postdoc, Sheila Walsh Reddy. Sheila is a senior scientist with The Nature Conservancy, focusing on how ecosystems and economies are interrelated and how to improve environmental decision making.

Other contributing authors include Brown economist Sri Nagavarapu, Brown applied mathematician Martin Maxey, former Brown undergraduate Allison Wentz, and Dr. Octavio Aburto of Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

To learn more about ongoing analyses of coupled social-ecological marine systems in the Gulf of California and elsewhere, please contact project leader Heather Leslie at Heather_Leslie(at)

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’

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.

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.

Sandy Andelman of Conservation International offers a compelling perspective piece, based on more than 20 years in the field, on why conservation scientists need to move away from business as usual, in our science, our communication, and our on the ground action. Download or read the  Nature article at

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