Tag Archives: coral reefs

Josh Cinner, Anna Tsing, and the Meadowlands

Three different takes on thinking about people and nature:

1) A profile of our colleague Josh Cinner in Science (a conservation social scientist):

Now a senior research fellow at James Cook University (JCU) in Townsville, Australia, Cinner studies how coral reefs and people interact in a vast swath of the Southern Hemisphere. “People often have trouble understanding why a social scientist is involved because they think it’s the realm of the marine biologists,” he says. But it makes sense in the context of coral reefs, which are host to dozens of species of fish that provide food and income for nearby villages. “You don’t manage fish. Fish swim and they do their own thing. You manage people. Managing ecosystems is really about managing people and understanding what motivates them and their behaviors.”

Cinner and [Tim] McClanahan have found that different places felt different effects of coral bleaching based on how much people depended on fish and tourism for a living and how flexible the local people were. In Madagascar, rigid taboos govern when people can fish and what gear they can use. “This actually leads to a bit of rigidity and stifles how people are able to adapt,” Cinner says. In Kenya, some people are so desperately poor that when the reefs are in trouble, they just fish harder in the same places. But in the wealthier Seychelles, people have boats that can take them farther out, to target fish that don’t live on the reefs.

These observations have led to ideas about how to protect reefs, and the people who depend on them, during coral-bleaching events. For example, if coral die and algae take over, it’s much harder for coral to get reestablished. But if the reef hosts plenty of parrotfish — which graze on algae and keep the reef clean — the coral will be more likely to come back. Spearfishing particularly targets parrotfish, so one strategy might be to buy back spearfishing gear from Kenyan fishermen to protect parrotfish and make a reef more resilient to climate change, while leaving fishermen with other means to fish.

Cinner wants to extend this work to Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, looking for other ways to help people and coral reefs survive climate change. Working in so many cultures is challenging, he says. “I sometimes have to go through four different languages to remember the word. I might say it in Swahili, Portuguese, and Spanish, and then realize I’m trying to speak Malagasy or something.” He says it’s also tough being away from home so much of the time; last year, he was outside of Australia for about 150 days. But all that is outweighed by the excitement of his research. “You never know what’s going to happen when you step off a bus into a dusty place you’ve never been,” Cinner says. “That feeling never really goes away no matter how many times you do it. It’s almost always worked out for me.”

3) The anthropology blog Savage Minds mentions well-known anthropologist Anna Tsing‘s discussion of the need for alternatives to Actor-Network Theory (which has been discussed on Resilience Science a few times). Savage Minds author Kerim Friedman writes:

Anna Tsing’s current research (or at least what she focused on in her talk) is about mushrooms, focusing on the ways in which mushroom cultivation reuses damaged (“blasted”) landscapes. Drawing on the work of Deborah Bird Rose, she emphasized the way in which these practices allow for a kind of “recuperation” for all the species inhabiting the landscape. She also talked about “multi-species anthropology” as an alternative to Actor-Network Theory. She argued that whereas ANT is useful for inanimate technologies which are animated by their interaction with humans, it is less useful for species which are already alive. Obviously, not all living organisms are relevant to every study, so once again the question of scale is important, and must be determined ethnographically. (See Juno’s Savage Minds review of When Species Meet.)

3) Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG writes about two books on New Jersey’s Meadowlands, a feral landscape within greater New York City.  He writes:

“Just five miles west of New York City,” the back cover of Sullivan’s book reads, are the Meadowlands: “this vilified, half-developed, half-untamed, much dumped-on, and sometimes odiferous tract of swampland is home to rare birds and missing bodies, tranquil marshes and a major sports arena, burning garbage dumps and corporate headquarters, the remains of the original Penn Station, and maybe, just maybe, of the late Jimmy Hoffa.” It is “mysterious ground that is not yet guidebooked,” Sullivan writes inside, “where European landscape painters once set up their easels to paint the quiet tidal estuaries and old cedar swamps,” but where, now, “there are real hills in the Meadowlands and there are garbage hills. The real hills are outnumbered by the garbage hills.”

Lutz’s book describes the region as a “32-square-mile stretch of sweeping wilderness that evokes morbid fantasies of Mafia hits and buried remains.” As Lutz explained in a 2008 interview with Photoshelter, “When I first saw the Meadowlands I was completely blown away at this vast open space with the Manhattan skyline in the distance. It was this space that existed between spaces, somewhere between urban and suburban all the while made up of swamps, towns and intersecting highways. None of it made any sense to me, still doesn’t.”

All told, the area has become, Sullivan writes, “through negligence, through exploitation, and through its own chaotic persistence, explorable again.”

Conservation Social Science

Conservation Biology has published three ‘virtual issues’ of Conservation Biology for the International Year of Biodiversity.  The issues each include 10-15 previously published articles from Conservation Biology, but access to these articles is now free of charge.  The virtual issues are:

Two of my articles are in the “Conservation Social Science” issue.  The first article was a collaboration with my Smith Fellows cohort, and the second was written by Tim Holland, who did his Masters with Andrew Gonzalez and I.

Resilience colleagues also have two papers reprinted, the first in the climate change special issue, and the second also in the social science issue

Resilience as an operating system for sustainability in the anthropocene

Chris Turner, author of Geography of Hope: A Tour of the World We Need, writing in the Walrus about the Anthropocene and the coral reef crisis in his long article Age of Breathing Underwater:

I first heard tell of “resilience” — not as a simple descriptive term but as the cornerstone of an entire ecological philosophy — just a couple of days before I met Charlie Veron on the pages of Melbourne’s most respected newspaper. I was onstage for the opening session of the Alfred Deakin Innovation Lectures in an auditorium at the University of Ballarat at the time. The evening had begun with a literal lament — a grieving folk song performed by an aboriginal musician. I’d then presented a slide show of what I considered to be the rough contours of an Anthropocene map of hope, after which a gentleman I’d just met, a research fellow at Australia’s prestigious Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation named Brian Walker, placed my work in the broader context of resilience theory.

I had to follow Veron all the way to the edge of the abyss his research had uncovered before I could come back around to resilience. The concept, it turns out, emerged from the research of a Canadian-born academic named Buzz Holling at the University of Florida, and has since been expanded by a global research network called the Resilience Alliance. “Ecosystem resilience” — this in the Resilience Alliance website’s definition — “is the capacity of an ecosystem to tolerate disturbance without collapsing into a qualitatively different state that is controlled by a different set of processes. A resilient ecosystem can withstand shocks and rebuild itself when necessary.” It’s a concept I encountered repeatedly in my conversations with reef researchers.

…This points to the broader implications of the resilience concept — the stuff Brian Walker likes to talk about. He and his colleagues in the Resilience Alliance often refer to their field of study as “social-ecological resilience,” suggesting that people are as essential to the process as reefs or any other ecosystem, and that real resilience is created in the complex, unpredictable interplay between systems. “With resilience,” Walker told me, “not only do we acknowledge uncertainty, but we kind of embrace uncertainty. And we try to say that the minute you get too certain, as if you know what the answer is, you’re likely to come unstuck. You need slack in the system. You need to have the messiness that enables self-organization in the system in ways that are not predictable. The best goal is to try to build a general resilience. Things like having strong connectivity, but also some modularity in the system so it’s not all highly connected everywhere. And lots of diversity.”

Resilience, then, embraces change as the natural state of being on earth. It values adaptation over stasis, diffuse systems over centralized ones, loosely interconnected webs over strict hierarchies. If the Anthropocene is the ecological base condition of twenty-first-century life and sustainability is the goal, or bottom line, of a human society within that chaotic ecology, then resilience might be best understood as the operating system Paul Hawken was on about — one with an architecture that encourages sustainability in this rapidly changing epoch.

This new operating system will, by necessity, be comfortable with loss. There is, after all, much to be gained from epochal, transformative change. In the midst of chaos and devastation on the scale of a world war, for example, we might discover how to breathe underwater.

Coral Reefs in the Anthropocene

Plos OneIn a commentary Shifting Baselines, Local Impacts, and Global Change on Coral Reefs in PLoS Biology coral reef ecologists Nancy Knowlton and Jeremy Jackson write:

Imagine trying to understand the ecology of tropical rainforests by studying environmental changes and interactions among the surviving plants and animals on a vast cattle ranch in the center of a deforested Amazon, without any basic data on how the forest worked before it was cleared and burned. The soil would be baked dry or eroded away and the amount of rainfall would be greatly decreased. Most of the fantastic biodiversity would be gone. The trees would be replaced by grasses or soybeans, the major grazers would be leaf-cutter ants and cattle, and the major predators would be insects, rodents, and hawks. Ecologists could do experiments on the importance of cattle for the maintenance of plant species diversity, but the results would be meaningless for understanding the rainforest that used to be or how to restore it in the future.

This lack of a baseline for pristine marine ecosystems is particularly acute for coral reefs, the so-called rainforests of the sea, which are the most diverse marine ecosystems and among the most threatened [4–8]. Most of the world’s tropical coastal oceans are so heavily degraded locally that “pristine” reefs are essentially gone, even if one ignores changes associated with already rising temperatures and acidity [3]. Most modern (post-SCUBA) ecological studies have focused on reef ecosystems that are moderately to severely degraded, and we have a much better understanding of transitions between human-dominated and collapsed reefs than between human-dominated and quasi-pristine reefs.

Knowlton and Jackson’s essay is a comment on an article in PLoS One Baselines and Degradation of Coral Reefs in the Northern Line Islands by Stuart Sandin and others that describes a large scale marine community assessment across a gradient of human dominated to relatively little impacted reefs in the Pacific. The study found that large predatory fish and reef-building organisms dominated the reefs around unpopulated islands, but around populated islands the reefs were dominated by small planktivorous fishes and fleshy algae. The reefs around populated islands exhibited more coral disease and less coral recruitment, suggesting that protection from overfishing and pollution may increase the resilience of coral reefs. The authors write:

Thus, local protection from overfishing and pollution may enhance ecosystem resilience to warm episodes and coral bleaching that result from global warming. To test this we need to determine how do coral recruitment, growth, and survivorship respond to changes in local community structure due to fishing, and how do these responses interact with episodes of warming measured by DHW. We also need to determine how fish productivity, i.e., the key currency of fisheries management, varies with changes in food web structure such as those observed between Kingman and Kiritimati. The only way to answer these questions is by investigation of reefs like the northern Line Islands that have remained remarkably intact in comparison to the global norm. They are among the only baselines that remain.

Continue reading

Coral Reef Futures and Resilience Economics

At Crooked Timber, Australian economist John Quiggin reflects on the recent Coral Reef Futures Forum, which was recently organized by Resilience Alliance member Terry Hughes group at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reefs Studies in Australia. The forum aimed to discus how global changes such as fishing, climate change, and ocean acidification are threatening coral reefs. John Quiggin writes:

I spent the last couple of days in Canberra at the Coral Reef Futures Forum, as part of my new Federation Fellowship is to look at economic approaches to management of the Great Barrier Reef. As one of the speakers said, a lot of the talks had people staring at their shoes in gloom, though the tone got a little more positive towards the end. …

The most hopeful view is that, if we can fix the local threats like overfishing and poor water quality, the resulting increase in resilience (part of my project is to develop a more rigorous understanding of this popular buzzword) will offset moderate global warming, so that if we can stabilise the climate (an increase of no more than 2 degrees) we might save at least some reef systems.

It will be interesting to see what type of resilience economics John Quiggin develops. Several other economists have been working on the economics of resilience, such as Wisconsin econmist Buz Brock, Charles Perrings at Arizona State U, as well as Anne Sophie Crepin and others at the Beijer Institute, but the there is a lot that needs to be done to create a broadly useful resilience economics.

Hidden Ecological Functions and Ecological Hysteresis

BatfishThe paper by coral reef researchers Bellwood, Hughes, & Hoey, Sleeping functional group drives coral-reef recovery in Current Biology (2006 16(24):2434 -9) shows that hidden ecological functions can be critical for ecological restoration and provides further evidence for the importance of hysteresis in ecological regime shifts.

The researchers were examining the frequently observed shift of coral reefs from being dominated coral to macroalgae. This change is often due to the overharvesting of herbivorous fishes, particularly parrotfishes and surgeonfishes, that maintain the coral regime. They showed that a shift to the marcoalgae dominated regime on the Australian Great Barrier Reef was reversed not by parrotfishes or surgeonfishes, but rather by a species of batfish, Platax pinnatus, which is relatively rare on the Great Barrier Reef, and was thought to feed only on invertebrates.

Their finding suggests three things:

  1. that conserving ecosystem functioning is important for both for the maintenance and recovery of ecosystems,
  2. that successful functional conservation requires that we need to greatly increase our functional understanding of ecosystems, and
  3. that research into ecosystem functioning should examine function in different ecological contexts.

Interestingly, this research finding is similar to that of common property researchers who have discovered that many local resource management institutions contain “hidden” resources management practices, that are only activated during special environmental conditions – for example a fishery may have alternative property rights emerge during periods low fish abundance.

Press coverage of this research can be found in a press release from James Cook University, the New Scientist, and the Washington Post.