CNH-L: Multiscale dynamics of coral reef fisheries: feedbacks between fishing practices, livelihood strategies, and shifting dominance of coral and algae

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National Science Foundation (NSF)
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Area/s of Research
Ecology and Evolution
Marine Conservation, Policy and Education

Millions of coastal dwellers rely on coral reef fisheries for food, income, and their personal and cultural identities, yet reefs are under threat worldwide as corals are increasingly replaced by macroalgae. Although overfishing of herbivorous fish has been identified as one of the key drivers behind coral to algae transitions, we have little understanding of the feedbacks and interrelations between fishing practices, coral reef livelihoods, and spatial patterns of coral and algal dominance. In this project we propose to bring cutting-edge techniques together in an integrated social, ecological, and modeling research program centered on the coral reef fishery of Moorea, French Polynesia. The research will be groundbreaking in that it will employ newly available high resolution (<1m) satellite imagery to provide comprehensive spatio-temporal data on shifts between coral and algae in Moorea's lagoons, complemented by fisher-led, participatory data collection techniques where local reef fishers use GPS enabled smartphones to document where they fish and what they catch. Livelihoods, social networks, and fish flow analyses will help reveal the adaptive capacity and livelihood strategies of households and communities who face fluctuating fishing opportunities and provision of seafood. This social and ecological work will be combined in spatially explicit models and analyses that explore how ecological dynamics and fisher decision-making processes jointly drive spatial dynamics on coral reefs.

Intellectual Merit:

Coral reefs in the lagoons of Moorea are comprised of a patchwork of coral and macroalgae whose shifting dominance has broad implications. Understanding the mechanisms causing reefs to transition from coral to algal dominance is one of the most pressing issues facing those who use or manage coral reef systems. The role of herbivores in preventing these transitions is commonly acknowledged, as is the importance of fishing on herbivores, but the factors that drive fishing effort and behavior are poorly understood. In particular, the broader adaptive capacity of these social-ecological systems is determined by factors such as available livelihood opportunities, unequal access to resources and command over ecological services, and the structure of networks through which information and resources are shared. In addition, both ecological and human dynamics in these systems are spatially structured and fluctuate through time. Understanding feedbacks between these components requires accounting for the spatial dynamics of ecological interactions and human behavior. By capitalizing on recent advances in satellite technology, inexpensive smartphones, and innovative ecological, social network, and modeling techniques this research program will reveal how fishing links the physical landscape with the landscape of social interactions, and reveal unique insights into the dynamic interrelations of the system.

Broader Impacts:

We will provide an exceptional integrative training environment for six graduate students, two postdoctoral researchers and numerous undergraduates who will gain experience in ecology, social science, and modeling. Graduate students and post-doctoral researchers will attend our fisher community workshops at the Te Pu Atitia Center on Moorea, and participate in the Moorea Coral Reef LTER All Investigator Meeting held annually at UC Santa Barbara. K-12 outreach activities will occur in both the U.S. and in Moorea; by partnering with teachers, we will develop multilingual curricula for California and Moorea elementary schools based on the new LTER Schoolyard series book "Kupe and the Corals". Our project will improve local capacity for monitoring, data collection and fishery management. We will foster interaction between local Moorea institutions and between local institutions and others (e.g., the Territorial government, the international science community) by (1) skill building at the community level through training and collaborative science and learning and (2) fisher and community workshops on Moorea to enhance understanding and interest in coral reef co-management. Capacity building will be further enhanced via our long-term partnerships with local NGOs. The proposed research will also be of direct value to coral reef conservation and management practitioners, yielding insights into sustainably managing similar systems across the Pacific region and into the processes that determine the spatial dynamics of coral reefs worldwide.