By: Kristen Weiss
Scientists from the Ocean Tipping Points Project working in Haida Gwaii, British Columbia.
Many marine ecosystems are susceptible to ecological ‘tipping points,’ in which small shifts in human pressures or environmental conditions bring about large, sometimes abrupt changes in the system. For example, drastic overfishing of cod along the northeastern Atlantic seaboard of the United States led to a tipping point in which the near-complete removal of cod allowed lobster to become the new dominant benthic predator. This shift resulted in significant changes to habitat, biodiversity and species composition in the region.
In some cases, a shift in ecosystem state results in a net loss to society (e.g., loss of coral reefs), while in other cases there may be new winners and losers as a result of the shift (e.g. cod fishermen versus lobster fishermen in the NE US or NW Atlantic). Understanding which environmental changes lead to tipping points, how to mitigate them, and what diverse stakeholders value from the system will be key for marine managers charged with maintaining or restoring healthy ecosystems worldwide.
The Ocean Tipping Points project seeks to address the management challenges associated with tipping points by providing resources and tools to help resource managers prevent or even reverse tipping points in their ecosystems. The project is a collaboration between researchers from the Center for Ocean Solutions, the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, Environmental Defense Fund and several other institutions. Now in its third year, the project is building momentum as it enters its case study research analysis, application, and outreach phase.
The Ocean Tipping Points team has published numerous publications to date focused both on the theory of tipping points science as well as field-based, empirical research conducted in the project’s case study locations of Hawai`i and Haida Gwaii, British Columbia. In Hawai`i, researchers have identified several different types of coral reef regimes (ranging from coral dominant to algae-dominant), and are exploring which human-caused or natural factors are playing the biggest role in regime shifts. In Haida Gwaii, researchers are largely focusing on the causes and implications of changes in herring population dynamics, as herring is an ecologically, culturally and economically important species in that region.
Much of this research has been featured in a blog series posted to OpenChannels, described in 2-page fact sheets and infographics and presented at conferences around the world. Several members of the Ocean Tipping Points project team recently participated in a panel hosted by the Center for Ocean Solutions’ MARINE program (videos of all presentations from the event are available to watch here).
The Ocean Tipping Points communications team is working with project researchers and management partners to develop useful tools, outreach materials and databases that help managers better characterize and monitor tipping points in their respective marine ecosystems to improve management outcomes. To this end, the team is developing a web-based guide that will assist managers in incorporating tipping points principles into their current management frameworks and provide access to resources that will help streamline decision-making.
Ultimately, the Ocean Tipping Points team hopes to contribute to a broader scientific understanding of how, when and why tipping points occur in marine ecosystems, and how this understanding can be applied to more effectively protect valuable natural resources, ecosystem services and ecosystems across the globe. To hear more about the Ocean Tipping Points project from the researchers themselves, check out this video.