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The OpenChannels Team

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Part 5: Ecological Thresholds can Inform Resource Management

The Ocean Tipping Points project is a collaboration of natural and social scientists, lawyers, environmental managers, and stakeholders working to understand what drives abrupt ecological shifts, and how they might be prevented or reversed. This is the fourth blog in a series highlighting the latest research and insights from our team of researchers.

Non-linear threshold responses are common in ecological systems, driven by both natural and human-induced pressures on ecosystems. However, Incorporating ecological thresholds into management can be a daunting task. In many ecosystems we have limited ability to predict if a threshold exists, when and how rapidly it will be crossed, and if positive feedback loops that entrain the new state will develop.

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Ocean conservation is hard. You fight the challenges of “out of sight, out of mind,” of largely unregulated high seas, and of waters so vast people find it hard to believe humans could actually overfish it (or as the saying goes in Jamaica, “fish can’t done”).

The ocean is indeed in deep deep trouble due to overfishing, climate change, pollution, and habitat destruction, and good science is needed to turn that around. This science doesn’t need to be fancy, expensive, or complicated. Rather, it needs to be thoughtful, targeted, and inclusive.

Here are six lessons I’ve learned (mostly the hard way) during my first decade of studying and working in ocean science and conservation that I wish I’d known from the very beginning.

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To be effective, marine conservation must be based on rigorous and targeted science. The large and growing threats to ocean ecosystems — overfishing, climate change, pollution, and habitat destruction — coupled with the limited scientific capacity of most small island states make science-based management not only an imperative, but also a challenge. Here’s one part of the solution: better global collaboration between local and foreign scientists.

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Two and a half years ago, the Waitt Institute launched the Blue Halo Initiative, through which we partner with governments and communities as they envision, design, and implement sustainable ocean management for their waters. In the time since, we supported the Caribbean island of Barbuda in passing meaningful legislation that zones the island’s entire coastal waters and protects 33 percent of them in marine reserves. This year we began working with the islands of Montserrat and Curaçao.

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Policy change, even at its most efficient, is often difficult and slow. This can be especially true for conservation policy, which often involves curtailing private sector business practices. On the flip side, the policymaking process can be sped up by clear public support. That’s why the recent consensus between the Caribbean fishing and SCUBA diving communities is so important – both groups understand that their coral reefs and fisheries are in serious trouble. 

Over the past 45 years, Caribbean coral cover has declined by more than half. Fish populations have plummeted due to overfishing. Fishermen are having a hard time making a living. Meanwhile, SCUBA tourism has increased dramatically. It’s evident to locals who derive their livelihoods from the sea that the ocean ecosystem on which they’ve traditionally relied is deteriorating rapidly.

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By Holly Rindge, USC Sea Grant

Mesh plankton net, bucket, thermometer, pipette, and microscope.  Rowena Valderrama with The SEA Lab in Redondo Beach gathers equipment and prepares to train volunteers on how to collect and analyze plankton samples from the local harbor. They are on the hunt for specific species of algae that may be toxic and lead to harmful algal blooms (HABs). The SEA Lab is a program of the Los Angeles Conservation Corps and her volunteers are mostly underserved young adults. Once a week they become citizen scientists and contribute important data to the Community HABwatch Program.


Brought to you by the EBM Tools Network

There are scores of resources for helping coastal planners gauge potential climate change impacts to natural resources and communities (e.g. Resources for gauging the economic/financial aspects of climate change adaptation actions (as opposed to climate change impacts themselves) are much rarer. There are very few software tools that deal with the costs and benefits of different adaptation options, but the EBM Tools Network ( has found one as well as a number of other great resources on this topic:

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Co-authored by Stephanie Roach, Waitt Institute Program Manager

The Waitt Institute team is made up of people who spent their childhoods playing at the beach, swimming in the calm turquoise Caribbean Sea, and learning about the amazing, diverse creatures that live beneath the surface. Each of us fell in love with the ocean at a young age, and we’ve been thrilled to be able to share that love, excitement, and wonder with the children of Barbuda over the last two summers.

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Part 4: Seven Principles for managing tipping points

The Ocean Tipping Points project is a collaboration of natural and social scientists, lawyers, environmental managers, and stakeholders working to understand what drives abrupt ecological shifts, and how they might be prevented or reversed. This is the fourth blog in a series highlighting the latest research and insights from our team of researchers.

Awareness is growing among scientists and environmental managers that human impacts can lead to dramatic, sometimes rapid, changes in the way that ecosystems look – for example, in the species and habitats that are dominant – and the way they work – such as how productive they are, how rapidly nutrients are cycled, or what benefits they provide to people.

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Posted on July 21, 2015 - 11:04am, by jfelt

By Jennifer Felt, Ocean Campaign Director, Conservation Law Foundation

Happy Birthday National Ocean Policy! This weekend the National Stewardship Policy for the Ocean, Our Coasts and Great Lakes (aka the National Ocean Policy, NOP) will have been around for half a decade. So, if you are at a backyard BBQ this Sunday, July 19 –the day the NOP officially turns five — don’t forget to raise a glass, bottle, or juice-box to commemorate our nation’s first comprehensive stewardship policy for the ocean, our coasts, and Great Lakes.

I was seven months pregnant and surviving the summer in Washington, D.C. when President Obama established the National Ocean Policy via Executive Order 13547. As I prepare to celebrate both my daughter’s and the NOP’s 5th birthday I cannot help but reflect on and rejoice over the journey of the past five years.