Tipping the Scale toward Sustainability

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The Ocean Tipping Points collaborative launches new science-based guide, tools and resources to support management of a changing ocean

From the coral reefs of Hawaii to the kelp-strewn coasts of British Columbia, scientists and ocean managers have been working together for the past several years to understand ecosystem tipping points in an effort to learn how to prevent or reverse them. The Ocean Tipping Points team is excited to launch a new web portal of practical tools, resources and in-depth research to help marine managers and stakeholders predict, prevent or recover from dramatic ecosystem changes. (continued after video)

Tipping points occur when small shifts in human pressure or environmental conditions bring about large, sometimes abrupt changes in a system - whether in a human society, a physical system, an ecosystem, or our planet’s climate. From collapsed fisheries and coastal dead zones, to melting sea ice and dying coral reefs, the consequences are often devastating to both the environment and the people who depend on it. Fisheries collapses are a prime example—as a result of overfishing, many ocean systems have undergone ecosystem shifts that make it difficult to recover or restore fish stocks to desired levels. Globally nearly 30% of all fisheries are collapsed or overfished, resulting in negative impacts on human communities around the globe, at an estimated cost $50 billion a year.

Collaborators on the Ocean Tipping Points Project have spent the last five years studying ecosystem tipping points to improve our ability to predict where they may occur and how to avoid crossing them. From the beginning, the team has measured its success based on whether managers actually found the science useful. The new portal represents the culmination of their efforts to distill the lessons learned from the research, and package them into a practical set of tools and approaches for the ocean and coastal conservation and management community. (continued after video)

The portal provides concrete analytical tools, guidance and resources to help ocean managers keep ecosystems healthy and resilient. While the costly impacts of tipping points are well known, practical tools for coping with them have been limited. Today, global climate change and other large-scale alterations to our environment are making ecosystems even more dynamic and unpredictable. The materials housed in the Ocean Tipping Points portal are therefore a timely and valuable addition to the ocean management toolkit.

The information in the portal links best available science, law and policy to practical management guidance, and is based on global synthesis as well as in-depth case studies on coral reef management in Hawaii and fisheries management in British Columbia. The Ocean Tipping Points Guide, featured on the website, walks users through four strategies for incorporating knowledge about ocean tipping points into existing management decision-making. The portal also provides information for specific management contexts, including water quality, fisheries, vulnerable species recovery, restoration, and ecosystem-based management. Other sections of the portal describe how tipping points science aligns with current U.S. and Canadian environmental laws and regulations, and provide links to tools, data and publications.

In collaboration with OpenChannels, a ‘community of practice’ section allows scientists, managers, and others working to protect ocean resources to post questions and connect with colleagues to share knowledge and resources. In this way the Ocean Tipping Points team hopes to encourage dialogue among scientists, ocean managers and other stakeholders who face tipping points in their ecosystems.

While research on social and ecological tipping points will continue into the future, Ocean Tipping Points researchers hope that the wealth of knowledge gained thus far and made available through this portal will enhance ocean and coastal management, catalyze new research in this area, and help coastal communities avoid unwanted surprises in the marine ecosystems upon which they depend.