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Research Funding Provided by: Australian Government
Research Funding Provided by
Australian Government

Australian Research Council

Environmental Futures Network
Environmental Futures Network
The University of Adelaide
North Terrace Campus
Darling Building
South Australia 5005

Phone: +61 8 8303 3952
Facsimile: +61 8 8303 4364

Project: Coping with change: resilience of marine social-ecological systems

CI(s)/Institution: Terry Hughes, James Cook University, Coral Reef Centre of Excellence (First cycle funding AUD$30,000)
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· Aim/Brackground
· Publications
· Workshops


A group of people from natural and social sciences have formed the Marine Resilience Alliance in order to see if solutions to problems in marine conservation and management can be found in the nexus of these disciplines. The group, who gathered in Maine, are among the first to consider social-ecological resilience in marine ecosystems. The group that has met in far-flung locations such as Australia and Sweden and saw a potential problem and opportunity to focus their attention on the Gulf of Maine's coastal zone.
The term ecosystem "resilience" was coined in 1973 to identify the behaviour of natural ecosystems and factors that contribute to their stability. It was quickly observed that many land and marine ecosystems "flip" into alternate (often undesirable) states. The science of resilience seeks to understand what contributes to the ability of ecosystems to resist change or, if changed, to recover to its previous more desirable state.

Escaping the Gilded Trap
Our failure to manage most marine fisheries illustrates the difficulties in managing common property that too often results in the tragedy of the commons. Overfishing results from the collective impact of reasonable fishers seeking to sustain their livelihood. Diverse resources allow fishers to target whatever is most valuable often sequentially depleting species.
The Gulf of Maine provides an excellent example of long term sequential depletion of fisheries species such as cod, hake, haddock, halibut and sea urchins that has contributed to the booms and busts of species. The loss of functional diversity has resulted in a near monoculture of lobsters that had formerly been prey of predators. In Maine, the American lobster has reached hyper-abundance over large stretch of the coast and today it comprises over 80 % of the total marine resource value. However, this economic success does not equal ecosystem success. The hyperabundance of lobsters has now over 7,000 lobstermen and their support industries depending upon this single species.
Elsewhere in New England, high densities preceded a devastating shell disease the late 1990s. Clearly lobster-dominated ecosystems are not immune to collapse.
A collapse of the Maine lobster fishery would be a socio-economic disaster to coastal communities throughout the region. Such a collapse would likely result in rapid gentrification loss of coastal access and exclusion of the fishing community and its associated infrastructure. Thus a rapid collapse of this one species could trigger a rapid social transformation to an unfavourable social state.

Escaping the trap: Creating options.
Traps in the marine system are particularly hard to navigate. The parallel to the terrestrial realm is attractive but largely unattainable because marine systems are more open, and less predictable. The Maine lobster fishery has a well developed conservation ethic. The lobster fishing communities have a history of acting to the benefit of long-term sustainability. A list of effective management measures such the prohibition of harvesting lobsters larger than 5' on the carapace was initiated by the lobster fishers once they recognized the problems caused by their fishing.


Marine Resilience Alliance met at the Darling Marine Centre Maine 24-31 August 2006. The workshop theme "Socialecological traps and transformations in marine fisheries" was chosen to explore the following issues. Could a larger sense of community be applied to the depleted coastal ecosystems of the Gulf of Maine? If so, what form of governance could work with that extended community? Is it possible that ecosystem-based co-management could result that fosters the political will to allow groundfish stocks to recover and to reinvent fishing so the mistakes of the past are not repeated. The first step of many must be to explain to stakeholders and policy makers what's at risk if we cannot escape this gilded trap.