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Feedback Loops and Adaptive MPA Management | A Conversation with Alfredo Giron-Nava and Anastasia Quintana

May 26, 2021

The 2021 World Ocean Day “Conservation Action” focus calls for support for the growing global movement to protect 30% of the ocean by 2030, also known as “30x30.” Now, over 70 countries support the “30x30” campaign, as well as non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and communities around the world. Marine protected areas (MPAs) serve as one of the primary conservation tools for achieving the “30x30” goal and there is a growing need to explore and understand MPA management strategies and models.

A new Frontiers in Marine Science paper co-led by Hoffmann Fellow Alfredo Giron-Nava and University of California Santa Barbara NSF Postdoctoral Fellow Anastasia (Tasha) Quintana investigates feedback loops for community-based conservation in northwest Mexico. Fishing communities in the area have designed and renewed a network of temporary no-take Zonas de Refugio Pesquero, or fishing refugia, aimed at rebuilding fisheries. The team took an interdisciplinary approach to develop a conceptual model that takes into account both social and ecological factors. Their results suggest that adaptation, learning, and leadership embedded within fishing communities contribute to a greater and growing impact—positive feedback loops—for conservation and fisheries management.

We sat down with Giron-Nava and Quintana to discuss feedback loops, future fisheries management, and the role of early career researchers in the ocean solutions space.

What brought you to this work? How did this research collaboration develop?

Quintana: Our story is one of a team building through time, two young researchers trying to do some truly integrated social-ecological science. We met when we were both PhD students and our advisors were working on an NSF Coupled Natural-Human Systems project in La Paz, Mexico. After that project, we found different opportunities to collaborate. It’s been a long four years of being committed to working together. Alfredo is one of my favorite collaborators.

Giron-Nava: Tasha and I have been trying to build an interdisciplinary collaboration where ideas from a social scientist and a natural scientist can work in harmony. It was important to start that collaboration at the graduate level because it takes time and practice to develop a common language across disciplines.

Can you explain how you approached questions about social-ecological feedback loops?

Quintana: These ideas were seeded around 2017. We were thinking about marine protected areas and the concept of size, and how size connects to physical boundaries and spheres of influence. We were both interested and somewhat critical of what size means for MPAs. How does MPA size influence ecological outcomes and how does that impact people?

Giron-Nava: We did our PhD research in Baja California, Mexico where I studied ecology and Tasha studied communities. That’s the beauty of having both working in the same place. We had amazing data on both ends. We just needed to figure out how to combine our research within the same framework.


How did learning from fishers impact your conceptual model?

Quintana: My type of social science is more qualitative and part of the qualitative work is trying to understand how your respondent understands a problem. For fishers, they’re trying to make a living. The long-term conservation of the fishery is in line with their objectives, but they’re much less wed to the concept of a strict MPA or the concept of marine reserves. In the case of the refugios, they’ve been able to develop a fluid conceptualization of what they are and to take control of their fisheries.

Giron-Nava: Some real breakthroughs in understanding also happened when we had conversations with Amy [Hudson Weaver], who is a co-author on the paper. She had been working in the fishing communities through an NGO for many years. She helped us connect our data and interviews with real insights from the community.  It was absolutely necessary to have the inside knowledge that came from fishers, from NGOs and from other scientists.


What surprised you most from those interviews?

Quintana: At first, I was very surprised that fishers thought about these areas not only as areas for fishing, but also as areas for conservation and the fluidity of that conceptualization. There was also a lot of variation among the answers, especially when it came to whether people thought the refugia were working or not. The fishers tended to use different metrics than the fishery scientists. It was interesting to see how those individual perceptions were reflected in collective design.

Giron-Nava: For the communities that had the biggest designs, with the largest, most ambitious MPAs and that even expanded in the second iteration, the common characteristic was that they had a strong leader. We learned that strong leadership was the key to successfully implementing ambitious plans.


How do you hope your research might affect future fisheries management?

Giron-Nava: It’s not only about fisheries management but also about conservation and both working together. What if we think about conservation and management as a non-static tool? Fishing communities are the ones who care the most about resources being there in the long-term, so conservation and management should prioritize the value that those resources have for communities. I think an important thing is that adaptive management is not a one-step process that needs to be perfect on the first try. The process needs to grow and change based on participation from fishing communities. That also allows for adaptation to climate change more so than static management strategies.

Quintana: There’s this idea of biosphere stewards, which is the idea that the people who depend on a resource are the closest to the ground and the most invested. I think small-scale fishers are some of the most connected people to the ocean. They know the tides, they know the waves. They are dependent on conservation in the long term and this makes them super knowledgeable and effective biosphere stewards. I think that policymakers who want to protect the ocean should think seriously about how they can empower fishers, as biosphere stewards, to protect their own seas.


What questions do you hope to explore next?

Giron-Nava: It kind of takes us back to our original idea about the effective size and influence of an area. In this case, fishers had the opportunity to redesign the size and number of MPAs every five years. That’s really unique. So we’re hoping to apply and refine the model for cases in other parts of the world and for other types of MPAs, like large-scale MPAs.

Quintana: We’ve been talking about the positive side of feedback loops and how to have increasing trust and benefits for an improved design. But our model also predicts negative feedback loops and a danger of decreasing trust. We’re interested in exploring these feedback loops to understand when and how loops break and if there is a way to increase trust again if an MPA is in a negative spiral.


This paper was published as part of a special issue of Frontiers in Marine Science that focuses on work by early career researchers. Why do you think early career voices are important to conversations about marine conservation?

Giron-Nava: It’s precisely what we are trying to do with the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO and including early career voices for the United Nations Ocean Decade [for Sustainable Development]. This is an example of how an increasingly interdisciplinary community of young researchers can break through some of the scientific silos that have existed for a while and address problems in a different way. We might be wrong in ten years, but we have decades to refine these ideas and foster this collaborative relationship.

Quintana: Alfredo has been a leader in pushing for early career voices in marine conservation at the United Nations. I think he’s a great example of what early career researchers bring: energy, enthusiasm, optimism, and interdisciplinary thinking. Who wouldn’t want that on their team?


Read the Frontiers in Marine Science paper >

Read the press release >

Read more from Giron-Nava and Quintana in The Conversation >

Read more from Giron-Nava and Quintana in World Economic Forum Agenda >

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