July 16, 2015

News: The Center Hosts Two Workshops on the Interactions Between Humans and Coastal Marine Ecosystems

The Center for Ocean Solutions is leading a working group focused on the Human Dimensions of Coastal Marine Ecosystems to develop strategies that marine management practitioners can use to better incorporate an understanding of human wellbeing into ocean planning. Headed by the Center’s science director, Larry Crowder, the group hopes to encourage more widespread interdisciplinary research on social-ecological systems.

Coastal development is booming around the world. More and more people are moving to coastal communities, increasing human-environment interactions and impacts in coastal and marine ecosystems—from fishing and boating to large-scale tourism and offshore mining. Nonetheless, efforts to characterize and manage the human dimensions of marine systems are often fragmented by sector (e.g. fisheries, shipping), or are limited in scope.

“The stretch for most of us is that scientists are typically trained in a specific discipline, like oceanography, or ecology, or anthropology,” says Crowder. “What we need to be able to do is talk across those disciplines, to understand each other, and be able to work in communities where people think of the world in a wide variety of ways.”

Elena Finkbeiner, early career social science fellow at COS, presents at the workshop in May, as Crowder (center, foreground) looks on. Credit: Kristen Weiss

COS and Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment hosted two workshops this year featuring a “dream team” of speakers from academic fields ranging from biology to economics, each emphasizing the importance of integrated, interdisciplinary research (watch the video here).

The central theme for both workshops was emphasizing research that helps us to better understand not just how humans impact the environment, but also how the environment affects human wellbeing, as well as what drives people toward environmentally and socially sustainable behavior.

The first workshop, held in February on the Stanford campus, introduced university faculty and students to a panel of speakers who stressed the importance of linking social and economic data to natural resources management, highlighting examples from their own research (read a summary of the event here). The second workshop, held on May 20th, further elaborated on these themes with guest speakers Chris Costello of UC Santa Barbara, Stefan Gelcich of Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile, Jim Sanchirico of UC Davis, and COS's own Early Career Social Science Fellow Elena Finkbeiner.

Ranging from small-scale fisheries management and marine protected area planning to the economics of habitat restoration, the workshop’s guest speakers represent a wide range of research emphases. Nonetheless, they all share a vested interest in understanding the interaction between ecological and social systems, particularly in coastal areas.

The Human Dimensions workshops also provided a forum for participants to discuss the role of interdisciplinary social-ecological research, and ways that universities like Stanford can encourage the continued growth of inter-departmental and cross-disciplinary research communities.

“If we don’t work in that uncomfortable middle ground between disciplines, we simply won’t solve the problems facing the oceans,” says Crowder. “It’s been interesting throughout my career to watch students pushing me along to get comfortable in this interdisciplinary space. I’m hopeful about the future because the students seem ready to go there.”

Crowder, the Human Dimensions working group, and COS staff will continue to explore new ways to increase cross-campus linkages in this crucial area of research.