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)
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
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.