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Volume 3, Number 3
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A Meeting of Minds

By Erica Goldman

Seven Mellon scholars sort through the contents of a Puget Sound dredge.

A younger generation of emerging marine ecologists sorts through the contents of a Puget Sound dredge. Sixteen stellar students from underrepresented groups participated in this symposium as "Mellon Scholars," with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

As Pacific Northwest rains drenched the forested hill on Puget Sound's San Juan Island, a group of more than 90 prominent scientists and students from across the country and overseas packed into a lecture hall in late August at Friday Harbor Laboratories (FHL). The weather was uncharacteristic for summer in the northwest as was the carefully crafted collision of science, sociology and policy. Experts had come to discuss the role of resilience in ocean and coastal ecosystems.

The Managing for Resilience Symposium, held as part of FHL's centennial celebration, set out to break new ground in a historic setting. The Laboratories have been at the epicenter of thinking about marine ecology for the past century, and the current meeting attempted to merge two scientific traditions: on the one hand, field and lab-based findings about how marine organisms interact with their environment; on the other, theoretical frameworks for thinking about how people affect the coastal ecosystems in which they live.

Organized by ecologists Jane Lubchenco and Karen McLeod from Oregon State University in Corvallis, and biologist Trish Morse from the University of Washington, the symposium challenged participants from different disciplinary backgrounds to negotiate new territory. The concept of resilience, the amount of perturbation an ecosystem can withstand before shifting into a different stable state, has been applied more clearly to rivers and lakes than to oceans and estuaries. The research presented at the meeting suggests that the scientific underpinnings of resilience in marine systems are beginning to emerge.

Research Highlights

Diversity and redundancy — at the level of genetics, species and communities — build resilience into an ecosystem, reported several of the scientists. Talks ranged from explorations of the theoretical basis of resilience to experimental tests of it in practice. For example, ecologist Jay Stachowicz, from the University of California at Davis, presented several case studies to illustrate the role of diversity as an ecosystem's "biological insurance." First, he presented results from a study in which he challenged an experimentally assembled community of marine bottom-dwellers with invasion by three species of non-native sea squirts. He found that communities with more species filled available space more completely and were better able to resist sea squirt invasion. In a second case study, Stachowicz showed that beds of the sea grass Zostera marina with high genetic diversity resisted disturbance by grazing geese better than beds with less genetic variation.

Genetic diversity may also play a key role in making an ecosystem resilient, according to initial insights from a study on phytoplankton — tiny plants that drive the ocean's food web. The study, conducted by marine biologist Brian Palenik from Scripps Institute of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, compared strains of phytoplankton from coastal locations and open ocean. Preliminary findings suggest that coastal species can better withstand environmental stresses and this resistance could be linked to variability in the genome. The first complete sequence of a species of diatom, one of the dominant groups of phytoplankton, was published in Science at the beginning of October, an effort that will pave the way for whole genome studies of these omnipresent algae.

Social scientists at the meeting also focused on the interaction or "coupling" between humans and their environment. Charles Perrings, from the University of York, U.K., for example, presented a study that linked economic data to large-scale ecological regime shifts. Perrings showed that changes in the environmental conditions of Lake Victoria, the world's second largest lake, which spans Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, might be forecast by trends in the economy. Specifically, he provided evidence that the switch to a state dominated by high algal biomass (eutrophication) closely follows changes in land use in the watershed. If we know how a fishery responds to price-driven changes in land use, such as the price of fertilizer, he explains, then those prices can also predict changes in the fishery.

"In this case, the market provides a lever on behavior," Perrings says. Even though people make decisions in their own self-interest, these decisions place predictable pressures on the environment, he says.

Beyond Academia

But how does the construct of resilience apply to management? The graduate students and postdocs present identified resilience in practice as a shortcoming of the meeting and seized upon a clear opportunity for leadership. We have heard debate on the question "what is resilience?" but we have not identified solutions for policy or management, says graduate student Tanya McKitrick from Stanford University. "Policy decisions will be made with or without input from scientists and the consequences of misinterpretation are too great," she says. The students argued for a follow-up meeting between scientists and managers to grapple with how to use ecosystem-based approaches to manage for resilience.

Last year's Pew Oceans Commission report and this year's U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy report delivered grave warnings on the state of the oceans and coasts. Political momentum resulting from the reports has already initiated legislation proposing sweeping changes in ocean policy and management at federal and state levels. Scientists, it's clear, have a role to play, not only in building empirical knowledge, but also in developing a new framework for thinking about ocean management — a framework that can translate key concepts about how ecosystems respond to and recover from perturbation into strategies for preserving and recovering resilience in disturbed areas. The younger generation, it is also clear, is ready to share the mantle of leadership with the giants who have paved the way.

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