Friday, May 13, 2011

Integrated Ecosystem Assessment – Change, Change and More Change

William Nuttle, Organizer for CERF 2011 Synthesis Sessions

As I write this I am tracking the progress of three flood events. Two of them are real, and one virtual. Along with residents of coastal Louisiana I am keenly watching the progress of the great Mississippi River flood of 2011, which is cresting today near Helena, Arkansas, heading for New Orleans. I also join my colleagues on the program committee for CERF 2011 as we watch the flood of abstracts pouring in just before tonight’s deadline for submissions. These real floods are life-changing events.

Adaptively managing the Mississippi River
 in 2011 to protect New Orleans from flooding
So too is the virtual flood of change currently washing through coastal and estuarine management programs. This flood has been building around the globe over the past ten years or so, with rising acceptance of ecosystem based management applied at a regional scale. Implementation of a new national ocean policy in the coastal waters of the US marks its most recent high water event. Add to this the confluence of climate change, rising sea level and growing human populations in coastal communities, and it is clear that this flood has not yet reached its crest.

How will the flood of change in coastal management affect coastal and estuarine scientists? Integrated ecosystem assessment lies at the interface between management and science. Integrated ecosystem assessment provides a mechanism used by both scientists and managers to gather and synthesize scientific information required to support an ecosystem-based approach to management. Therefore, we can trace the effects of change in coastal management, back through the elements of integrated ecosystem assessment, to their impact on coastal and estuarine science.

Integrated – Changes in coastal management drive coastal and estuarine scientists to work at larger and longer scales. For example, what will be the impacts of the Mississippi River flood on the ecosystem in it deltaic region and the coupled coastal marine waters? And how far will they extend into the future - years, decades, longer? The need to respond to questions like these drive coastal managers to look for ways to integrate science more directly with management.

Ecosystem – Coastal ecosystems include people! Protecting ecosystems has been an explicit goal of environmental management ever since the early days of the environmental movement, forty years ago. However, for most of this period, managers have pursued the strategy of erecting barriers around our activities, both real and through regulation, to protect the natural environment from human disturbance, and vice versa. Implicit in this strategy is the view that people are separate from nature, not an integral part of ecosystems. The movement to adopt ecosystem-based management is motivated in large degree by failures of this separatist strategy. Dikes built to control flooding along the Mississippi also starve coastal wetlands from inputs of river sediment needed to sustain them. Both managers and scientists need to rethink the relationship between people and the coastal environment.

Assessment – We need to move beyond simply assessing risks on to solving the knotty problems facing coastal managers. Can integrated ecosystem assessment be used to design diversions from the Mississippi River that both protect human communities from floods, when we need it, and restore and sustain wetlands, when they need it? What are we trying to protect, and therefore to assess – sustainability, biodiversity, ecosystem services, economic opportunity? What is it about large-scale, regional coastal and estuarine ecosystems that people care about? And can these attributes be evaluated using the objective tools of scientific analysis?

Are we, coastal and estuarine scientists, prepared to deal with the flood of change already pooling at our feet? No doubt the deluge of abstracts just now cresting on the CERF 2011 meeting website carries the answer to this question. Like you, I am looking forward to hearing these talks and viewing these posters at the meeting in Daytona Beach.

Societies, Estuaries & Coasts: Adapting to Change
But why wait? Between now and the CERF 2011 meeting in November, this blog will host a series of posts on the sink or swim issues outlined above. The discussion begun here sets the stage for the synthesis sessions planned as part of the conference program.

Join the discussion! Read, comment, and offer your own views on what changes lie ahead and what changes might already be taking place.

Photo credit: New Orleans Times-Picayune.

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