Beyond catch statistics: Uncovering resilience and change in marine social-ecological systems
As we look towards a future of changing climate and increasing human needs, sustaining our oceans for both ecological and human well-being is critical. This aim necessitates an awareness of how marine social-ecological systems adapt and are resilient to change, an aim that requires us to look beyond traditional resources and approaches. This proves especially true as research increasingly demonstrates the prevalence of nonlinear and even chaotic behavior in the oceans, challenging conventional assumptions of linearity and equilibrium. Together, this research and needs of the future challenge us to use creative data and methods to study ecological systems and reliant human communities.
Our research objective was to assess the impact of people on the dynamics and structure of an ecologically and economically vibrant ecosystem, the Bay of Fundy, for better understanding of system resilience and ability to adapt. Investigations combined modern (1960s-2002) data with novel historical (circa 1850-1920) quantitative and qualitative sources. We used innovative empirical dynamics modeling to analyze dynamics and structure through time, explicitly exploring both linear and nonlinear behavior. This research is the first to combine these emergent techniques with unique long-term data to assess the influence of people on marine ecosystems through time.
Results indicate that before intense human exploitation, the Bay of Fundy was highly nonlinear and locally diverse, yet interconnected through local substocks. Productivity was further supported by a diverse forage base. We argue that together, these elements were essential for population persistence and system resilience through decades to centuries of human use. Our findings also show how people subverted this resilience. Certainly, catch increased dramatically, but what was landed and where were decisive as well. First, people overfished the forage base, undermining system productivity from the bottom. Second, fishing shifted to regional scales, overwhelming nonlinear dynamics and local system structure, and revealing the spatial scale of human influence as key.
Our work provides new insight into the structure and dynamics necessary for system resilience, and how human impacts can undermine that resilience. For the Bay of Fundy, our findings reveal management at local scales and restoration of the forage base may be crucial for future sustainability. These results were made possible through the creative use of novel resources and approaches. Such use can expand our knowledge of how ecosystems respond to change, and help identify characteristics of ecosystem resilience. This deeper understanding may prove critical in an uncertain future.