Tag Archives: ecological

Climate change requires new conservation models, Stanford scientists say

In a world transformed by climate change and human activity, Stanford scientists say that conserving biodiversity and protecting species will require an interdisciplinary combination of ecological and social research methods.

By Ker Than

A threatened tree species in Alaska could serve as a model for integrating ecological and social research methods in efforts to safeguard species that are vulnerable to climate change effects and human activity.

In a new Stanford-led study, published online this week in the journal Biological Conservation, scientists assessed the health of yellow cedar, a culturally and commercially valuable tree throughout coastal Alaska that is experiencing climate change-induced dieback.

In an era when climate change touches every part of the globe, the traditional conservation approach of setting aside lands to protect biodiversity is no longer sufficient to protect species, said the study’s first author, Lauren Oakes, a research associate at Stanford University.

“A lot of that kind of conservation planning was intended to preserve historic conditions, which, for example, might be defined by the population of a species 50 years ago or specific ecological characteristics when a park was established,” said Oakes, who is a recent PhD graduate of the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources (E-IPER) at Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy, & Environmental Sciences.

But as the effects of climate change become increasingly apparent around the world, resource managers are beginning to recognize that “adaptive management” strategies are needed that account for how climate change affects species now and in the future.

Similarly, because climate change effects will vary across regions, new management interventions must consider not only local laws, policies and regulations, but also local peoples’ knowledge about climate change impacts and their perceptions about new management strategies. For yellow cedar, new strategies could include assisting migration of the species to places where it may be more likely to survive or increasing protection of the tree from direct uses, such as harvesting.

Gathering these perspectives requires an interdisciplinary social-ecological approach, said study leader Eric Lambin, the George and Setsuko Ishiyama Provostial Professor in the School of Earth, Energy, & Environmental Sciences.

“The impact of climate change on ecosystems is not just a biophysical issue. Various actors depend on these ecosystems and on the services they provide for their livelihoods,” said Lambin, who is also  a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

“Moreover, as the geographic distribution of species is shifting due to climate change, new areas that are currently under human use will need to be managed for biodiversity conservation. Any feasible management solution needs to integrate the ecological and social dimensions of this challenge.”

Gauging yellow cedar health

The scientists used aerial surveys to map the distribution of yellow cedar in Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve (GLBA) and collected data about the trees’ health and environmental conditions from 18 randomly selected plots inside the park and just south of the park on designated wilderness lands.

“Some of the plots were really challenging to access,” Oakes said. “We would get dropped off by boat for 10 to 15 days at a time, travel by kayak on the outer coast, and hike each day through thick forests to reach the sites. We’d wake up at 6 a.m. and it wouldn’t be until 11 a.m. that we reached the sites and actually started the day’s work of measuring trees.”

The field surveys revealed that yellow cedars inside of GLBA were relatively healthy and unstressed compared to trees outside the park, to the south. Results also showed reduced crowns and browned foliage in yellow cedar trees at sites outside the park, indicating early signs of the dieback progressing toward the park.

Additionally, modeling by study co-authors Paul Hennon, David D’Amore, and Dustin Wittwer at the USDA Forest Service suggested the dieback is expected to emerge inside GLBA in the future. As the region warms, reductions in snow cover, which helps insulate the tree’s shallow roots, leave the roots vulnerable to sudden springtime cold events.

Merging disciplines

In addition to collecting data about the trees themselves with a team of research assistants, Oakes conducted interviews with 45 local residents and land managers to understand their perceptions about climate change-induced yellow cedar dieback; whether or not they thought humans should intervene to protect the species in GLBA; and what forms those interventions should take.

One unexpected and interesting pattern that emerged from the interviews is that those participants who perceived protected areas as “separate” from nature commonly expressed strong opposition to intervention inside protected areas, like GLBA. In contrast, those who thought of humans as being “a part of” protected areas viewed intervention more favorably.

“Native Alaskans told me stories of going to yellow cedar trees to walk with their ancestors,” Oakes said. “There were other interview participants who said they’d go to a yellow cedar tree every day just to be in the presence of one.”

These people tended to support new kinds of interventions because they believed humans were inherently part of the system and they derived many intangible values, like spiritual or recreational values, from the trees. In contrast, those who perceived protected areas as “natural” and separate from humans were more likely to oppose new interventions in the protected areas.

Lambin said he was not surprised to see this pattern for individuals because people’s choices are informed by their values. “It was less expected for land managers who occupy an official role,” he added. “We often think about an organization and its missions, but forget that day-to-day decisions are made by people who carry their own value systems and perceptions of risks.”

The insights provided by combining ecological and social techniques could inform decisions about when, where, and how to adapt conservation practices in a changing climate, said study co-author Nicole Ardoin, an assistant professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education and a center fellow at the Woods Institute.

“Some initial steps in southeast Alaska might include improving tree monitoring in protected areas and increasing collaboration among the agencies that oversee managed and protected lands, as well as working with local community members to better understand how they value these species,” Ardoin said.

The team members said they believe their interdisciplinary approach is applicable to other climate-sensitive ecosystems and species, ranging from redwood forests in California to wild herbivore species in African savannas, and especially those that are currently surrounded by human activities.

“In a human-dominated planet, such studies will have to become the norm,” Lambin said. “Humans are part of these land systems that are rapidly transforming.”

This study was done in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station. It was funded with support from the George W. Wright Climate Change Fellowship; the Morrison Institute for Population and Resource Studies and the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences at Stanford University; the Wilderness Society Gloria Barron Fellowship; the National Forest Foundation; and U.S. Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station and Forest Health Protection.

For more Stanford experts on climate change and other topics, visit Stanford Experts.

Source : Stanford News

Sustaining Saudi Arabia’s reefs for the future

By Meres J. Weche


“About 150 kilometers of Jeddah’s coastline has become useless for sea creatures. If the level of pollution is not controlled or treated then the Kingdom will soon have to import fish and shrimps to meet its demands,” warned Dr. Ahmad Ashour from the Presidency of Meteorology and Environment Protection (PMEP), when speaking to local Saudi media in the past year.

Marine ecological environments, where all kinds of sea creatures, corals, fish and algae evolve, require healthy interactions between the natural habitat and influences from human environments in order to thrive. “What we’ve learned over the past few years is that the reef systems around the Saudi coast are not immune to the global stressors that are affecting reefs all over the planet,” said Dr. Michael Berumen, Associate Professor ofMarine Science at KAUST.

As highlighted in a recent KAUST article focusing on surveying work from the Director of the Red Sea Research Center, Prof. Xabier Igigoien, a major human-induced stressor is pollution – mainly from plastics making their way into the oceans of the world. Another factor are the globally increasing temperatures and the resulting problems from decreasing ocean pH and ocean acidification. So in addition to global problems affecting the coral reef systems, there are also locally specific challenges to be tackled.

For his part, Prof. Michael Berumen believes that another major locally influenced factor that needs to be observed in overfishing. “There’s too many fish in the fish markets and not enough fish in the reefs,” as he deplores. “There’s an imbalance that requires a closer look at promoting sustainable fishing practices.”

Where Have All the Big Fish Gone?

Saudi Arabia is fortunate to have enormous systems of reefs, a large reef habitat and a huge coastline with healthy reefs. Moreover, the relatively low population level along the Red Sea coast, apart from a few large urban areas would, generally speaking, minimize negative human impacts on the marine ecology. Also, the fact that there are no big river systems flowing into the Red Sea makes this maritime environment very unique.

The latter point is significant because in most places in the world, where lands are transformed by farming, intensive agricultural practices introduce all kinds of chemicals, pesticides and fertilizers — which change the composition of the land. When there’s a big rainstorm, or wet season, all this altered soil gets dumped into the sea. This is not a problem that exists in Saudi Arabia.

This is why when Prof. Michael Berumen and a team of reef experts from Australia and the US-based Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution first started diving in the Red Sea along the Saudi coast about seven years ago, they were surprised with what they observed. As Berumen recalls:

“On our very first trip we were on a boat that went from Yanbu to Jeddah, so including the reefs here in Thuwal. We cruised southwards and every few kilometers we were stopping and surveying a reef. It really was within about 3 or 4 dives that we all started saying that something was missing here. The reefs looked great but we were missing those top predators. They were just not there. ‘Where are they?’ we asked. Where are all the sharks that we should be seeing?”

Through KAUST’s partnership with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, a team began a project to look into fishing pressures. They sought to understand why it was that directly across the Red Sea, on the Sudanese coast, other expeditions observed the presence of far more big fish.

“There are sharks on almost all the dives in the Sudan; there are big groupers, big jacks, and big snappers. There are all these big top predator fish which we notably don’t have here. It’s indeed very rare to see sharks and big groupers or big snappers on the Saudi reefs,” as Prof. Berumen explained.

What the Woods Hole surveying team found, partially using data from the fisheries department within the Saudi Ministry of Agriculture, was that “most species of fish have more or less collapsed as a fishery even as many as two or three decades ago.”

Prof. Berumen estimates that there are between 8,000-10,000 fishing boats, which practice what he characterizes as “artisanal industrial fishing,” operating along the Saudi coast.

While this doesn’t involve big industrial fishing fleets as one would normally think of when considering commercial fishing, the sheer numbers of these fishermen collectively exert as much pressure on the fisheries as industrial fishing. They’re basically using hand lines, single lines, some nets and maybe some traps; but the constant fishing has a severe impact.

“I don’t think there are any reefs in this region — even on the furthest offshore reefs that we’ve gone to here — where we didn’t regularly see fishing boats. So I think fishing pressure all through here is fairly homogenous,” said Berumen.

The Role of Education for Conservation Efforts

In addition to overfishing, the other major stressor to the Red Sea coastal reefs and marine ecology is again caused by widespread pollution. “When you drive to Thuwal from Jeddah, what do you see? A forest of plastic bags; and so much of that plastic ends up in the sea,” said Prof. Berumen. The problem isn’t just limited to the vicinities of large urban agglomerations. In fact, plastic remnants can be found across the Saudi coast. “Plastic is going to be a major challenge for us for decades and decades to come,” he adds.

Even in remote areas such as between the Farasan Islands and Al-Lith, which Michael Berumen calls “Saudi Arabia’s Great Barrier Reef” and where there are hundreds of really nice reefs, the problem can be observed. “It’s far away from big cities but it doesn’t matter. The islands in that region have got lots of trash and plastics,” explains Berumen. “The little fish that are migrating up and down are probably eating a lot of that plastic.”

The presence of KAUST and its Red Sea Research Center over the past few years has been instrumental in conducting important surveying and research work to tackle those twin problems of pollution and overfishing that are having a devastating effect on the Red Sea’s marine ecology environment.

But Prof. Berumen is quick to point out that it’s out of KAUST’s scope, or mission, to advocate for the enforcement of fishing regulations. The valuable research and surveying work being done on the Red Sea’s marine life by KAUST marine scientists can nonetheless serve as a valuable benchmark in the event that relevant authorities sought to institute such regulations. Examples would be restrictions on maximum or minimum fish size, daily catch amount limits, seasonal closures, and restricted fishing locations. So KAUST is already well positioned to consult government bodies on devising conservation strategies.

“What we should be, and are, doing is to collect the data. When and if we’re ever asked for it we are ready to provide scientifically sound reasoning for specific policies or changes in practices. We won’t need to ask the regulators to come back in five years for results,” as Berumen explained.

What KAUST is actively committed to doing however is to educate the public about the importance of marine ecology conservation. Outlining this goal, Prof. Berumen says:

“One of the things that I think we as a center and a university have to try to address is that education gap. There’s an old conservation saying that if you don’t know what you’ve got, it’s impossible to care about it. If you don’t even know it’s there it’s really hard to be concerned about it.”

One good example of a very positive sign which Prof. Berumen points to in the last couple of years has been the successful opening of the Fakieh Aquarium along Jeddah’s Corniche. A first of its kind in the Kingdom, the aquarium “promotes the conservation of the environment by spreading awareness through education and entertainment.”

The aquarium welcomes thousands of visitors per week. “That’s great because I know it’s happening,” said Berumen. “I’ve been there and I’ve watched the people come in and say: ‘Really? We have this literally a hundred meters away? If I jumped out into the water off the Corniche I would see these things?”

Prof. Berumen believes that this is the exposure that has been missing. “People were not exposed to what they had in their own backyard,” he said. He observes the same reaction when taking local Jeddah residents snorkeling for the first time. “So I’m optimistic that there are steps in the right direction and eventually there’ll be a sea change, as it were, in the public attitude toward conservation.”

Source: KAUST News