At Sustaining Coastal Cities Conference, Scientists Point to Ocean Solutions

Panelists speak at the Sustaining Coastal Cities Conference at Northeastern University. Photo credit: Northeastern/Brooks Canaday

Last week, ocean users and marine scientists gathered at Northeastern University to hear an excellent series of talks on the future of ocean sustainability at the Sustaining Coastal Cities Conference. With a particular focus on climate change and the health of fisheries, the conference brought global issues home to New England and demonstrated this region’s strength in marine science.

The meeting kicked off on Wednesday night with a lecture by the legendary conservationist Sylvia Earle, who delivered a powerful call to action. For perhaps the first time in human history, Earle remarked, we have both an awareness of issues affecting our oceans and the technology to address them.

Thursday morning’s session featured Dr. Ove Hoegh-Guldberg of the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland and Dr. Stephen Hawkins of the University of Southampton. The speakers focused generally on marine conservation, with a particular spotlight on the new challenges presented by global climate change and ocean acidification. Hoegh-Guldberg focused specifically on the threat of coral bleaching, exacerbated by warmer and more acidic ocean waters—by 2100, he noted, global waters may be too warm for the continued survival of any coral reefs. Hawkins used a case study of two species of barnacles on the British coast to show how datasets with long time series have already contributed to our understanding of the effects of climate change. He also touched on coastal adaptation to climate change and warned against inappropriate coastal development and attempts to hold the line against rising waters. The panel following the morning’s talks reiterated the idea of climate change as a “threat multiplier”, exacerbating the effects of other stresses on marine ecosystems.

The afternoon’s session narrowed its focus to a particularly salient issue in marine conservation and climate change—fisheries management. Dr. Steven Gaines, of the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California Santa Barbara, presented an innovative method of visualizing the health of global fisheries—by mapping the fishing yield of a certain species relative to its maximum sustainable yield against its biomass relative to the biomass needed to sustain the maximum sustainable yield. With this tool in hand, Gaines showed that on a global level, small unassessed fisheries are in far worse shape than those with formal stock assessments, and their status continues to worsen. He then turned to long-term solutions to improve the status of fish stocks, including marine protected areas and Territorial Use Rights Fisheries, in which local ownership of fishing areas promotes good stewardship. Dr. Larry Crowder of Stanford similarly focused on the importance of community management of small-scale fisheries, like the Mexican pen shell fishery. He noted the importance of solid use rights and strong local leadership in effective co-management.

The panel following the afternoon’s discussions turned from global fisheries issues to those here in New England. Panelists including Jake Kritzer of the Environmental Defense Fund, Bob Steneck of the University of Maine, and Jon Grabowski of Northeastern expressed concern over the pressure placed on New England’s fish populations by climate change. They recommended a range of solutions, from cutting catch limits to promoting the consumption of underutilized species to collaborative research and planning with fishermen and sector managers. Gaines in particular noted the period of pain associated with recovery and the often unfair association of this difficulty with new management strategies—a particularly pertinent point for New England’s fisheries.

The conference was intended in part to celebrate the success of the Northeastern University Marine Science Center, located in Nahant, and the Urban Coastal Sustainability initiative it supports. This rapidly growing initiative, with the ongoing support of the larger ocean science community, will continue to contribute groundbreaking research on the health of marine resources in New England and globally.


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