Report from the front lines: Making science-based advocacy work in ocean conservation
The ocean is an incredibly complex natural system, highly uncertain in its patterns and rhythms. Fish populations naturally change dramatically over time; physical, chemical, and biological processes interact in subtle ways, and the system’s ecological resilience to these changes varies greatly geographically. Humans are introducing considerable changes through fishing, drilling, climate-related warming, and acidification, with largely unpredicted ecological ramifications.
The advocate’s job is to make sure this system is managed responsibly. But the problem is that we really don’t yet understand how to manage such complexity. How can oceans be fished and economically developed in a manner which is both ecologically and economically sustainable? So far, we have erred on extreme opposite sides of the spectrum. On one side, we have drawn up incredibly complex management strategies (e.g. commercial fisheries in the developed world) which are incapable of keeping up with the rate of change in the ocean. On the other side, we have treated the ocean as a free externality (e.g. plastic waste, oil spills, acidification) or assumed any ecological limitations away entirely (e.g. developing world fisheries). Neither of them works.
What we need instead are systems management solutions that aim for simplicity, speed, adaptability, and effectiveness. These solutions can no longer be developed by oceanographers and fishery managers alone. They require global networks of experts in behavioral economics, complex systems analysis, institutional design and governance, ecological modelling, etc. They require the insights gained by those who have thought deeply about managing equally complex and dynamic systems, such as mortgage markets, epidemics, and complex software systems. They require the cooperation of decision makers across a large institutional array.
These folks don’t come together naturally – they tend to stay in their stovepipes. It is the advocate’s job to “cobble together” the global, scientific expert networks. The reward of doing so is enormous. For example, at Ocean Conservancy we are engineering a global network of systems modelers, economists, and fishery managers to re-invent commercial fishery management – essentially moving it from a slow, expensive. static equilibrium model towards a fast-cycle, rapid-response, highly-data efficient model applicable to fisheries around the world. In another example, we are working with the largest consumer goods and plastics manufacturing companies to figure out how to fundamentally change the economics of post-consumer waste collection in the five countries which account for the great majority of plastics in the ocean.