Exploring the Natural ~ Human Interface, The 2016 Coupled Systems Workshop in La Paz, Mexico


Blog, Coastal & Marine, Conservation, Fisheries, General


Intense focus at the start of the workshop
Intense focus on the first day of the workshop (Alan B.)

The recent “Coupled Natural-Human Systems Workshop”, which I had the pleasure of attending in La Paz, BCS, Mexico, demonstrates the exciting international collaborations taking place around the Gulf of California’s globally significant ecosystems and fisheries.

Participants included Heather Leslie (a marine conservation scientist from University of Maine and the project’s lead principal investigator) Amy Hudson Weaver (a marine ecologist and local fisheries policy expert from Niparaja, an NGO based here in La Paz), Xavier Basurto, (one of the initial founders of Community – Biodiversity, or COBI, a professor at Duke University and an expert on the complex interactions surrounding the governance of marine resources), Maja Schlüter (an internationally recognized expert in social-ecological systems modeling from Stockholm University’s Stockholm Resilience Centre), and the GOC Marine Program’s Octavio Aburto (a marine biology professor at Scripps with expertize in science communication and marine policy).

Conservationists, scientists & fishers; we are all in the same boat – Catalina Lopez rides with fishers in Golfo de Santa Clara, Sonora (José Cota)

Many of these experienced guests already know one another, but for the rest of us it was a treat to meet so many pacesetters and watch them working together with a shared vision. The new alliance, funded by the National Science Foundation, asks a complex question that will require teamwork to answer:

How does  institutional diversity and economic variability in Gulf of California artisanal fisheries, together with environmental variability, shape the resilience and adaptive capacity of fishing communities and ecosystems?”

Providing answers to this broad question will hopefully allow for “bottom-up management”, where communities are supported in co-managing marine resources in ways that sustain both livelihoods and local marine ecosystems; the researchers will address both social and environmental factors, affecting the quality of life for fishermen and communities as well as the health of the Gulf of California.

Fortunately, no one has to start from scratch; data from the Mexican Commission for Aquaculture and Fisheries, CONAPESCA, which has a transparency policy that allows us to access it freely upon request, is available, along with the GCMP’s Ecological Monitoring data that has been painstakingly collected over the last eighteen years. Ex-Mexican Navy man and logistics coordinator Benigno Guerrero represented the CBMC monitoring team.

The GCMP’s Ecological Monitoring Program collects annual habitat and species data (Ramiro Arcos)

Our monitoring data tends to be more reliable than the government data, because where as we make our observations directly, by spending time underwater with the fish, there are inconsistencies in how fishermen and reporting offices operate. For example, fishers will often give away an un-reported part of their catch to their helpers and familiars, creating an information gap, and different reporting offices will use different methods in their operations, such as in how they weigh the catch.

Additional ecological data will be provided via the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO), a premier scientific organization in San Diego.  Scripps collects satellite images and processes them to extract key data, needed to assess the resiliency of the Gulf’s marine ecosystems, such as Sea Surface Temperatures (SST), Chlorophyll-a concentrations, and Net-Primary-Productivity. Representing Scripps, Andrew F. Johnson, and PhD student Alfredo Giron-Nava, are key-players, and will provide the ecological data that is most relevant to the human interface.

As far as the human dynamic in concerned, other PhD and MSc students have been working in the field tirelessly to collect information from all around the Gulf via surveys and one-on-one conversations with individual fishermen. These students are Kara Pellowe (working with Leslie at UMaine), Anastasia Quintana (working with Xavier at Duke University), and Blanca Garcia-Mon and Laura Elsler (working at Stockholm University).

(From left) Maja, Kara & Anastasia enjoying our trip to Espiritu Santo Island (Alan B.)
Collaborative work started early, well before 12:40pm                                                                                                   from left: Emilie, Xavier & Maja (Alan B.)

The trickiest part will be weaving the ecological and societal data together to try to answer questions about ecological and social resilience (the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties), that could have significant applications to resource management in the Gulf of California.  For example;

  • How are individual fishing communities organized, and does the type and level of organization affect the long-term resiliency of the industry, the surrounding community, and the environment? (Two types of organizations that will be explored are fishing cooperatives, where permits are held by a group, and private firms, where individuals (permisionarios) hold fishing permits.


  • How may increased biodiversity – both in the nearshore marine environment and in fishermen’s catches – contribute to social and ecological resilience?



The beach proved an excellent place to come together (Alan B.)
  • To what extent, and how, do buyers influence fishing practices, and how do these influences vary between fishers selling to regional vs. international-market buyers?
  • How does fisher fidelity vs. infidelity (when fishers look outside of their regular buyers to sell their catch for greater profit at greater risk) affect the fishery’s organizational system, and what are the associated impacts on the community and environment?

An important tool for conducting collaborative research around these questions, will be the GCMP’s Datamares website, a shared, online, data visualization and analysis platform that applies Tableau, a state of the art software used by many major corporations to map their business data. As pointed out by Datamares coordinator Raquel Lopez, based in Mexico City, “Being able to share and present our diverse data, and how we are analyzing it, in visual ways, will be an essential part of any multi-faceted, interdisciplinary collaboration.”


Amy Hudson from Niparajá shares a document with dataMares’ Coordinador Raquel (Alan B.)

Another important device that is used to answer complex queries such as the ones we are tackling, is modeling;

“A way to increase our understanding of system dynamics; identify major processes, drivers and responses; highlight major gaps in knowledge; and provide a mechanism to road-test management strategies before implementing them in reality (Fulton et al., 2010).”

Participants like Emilie Lindkvist, a systems modeler and sustainability scientist from Sweden, and Bjorn Vollan, a German environmental economist, will provide unique perspectives and mathematical frameworks for the project.

(Heather & Anastasia) The landscape provided a great deal of inspiration.
I’m sure that, like Laura Elsler pictured here, we all gained a new perspective at the Workshop! (Alan B.)

In summary, there are three things I find to be central to this human-environment research initiative:

  • Firstly, the work being done is practical to fisheries management and marine conservation, with results applicable across international borders.
  • Secondly, it brings more scientists into contact with fishing communities, promoting bottom-up, ecosystem-based management (EBM) – a much-needed dynamic in the Gulf today.
  • Lastly, it involves a progressive vision for the future: a Gulf of California where people exist in harmony with the marine environment for long periods of time, as opposed to the classic “boom and bust” fishery scenario, which benefits neither the people nor the environment.


Where single-discipline science can provide bricks of knowledge to be added to the walls of a, more or less, mysterious structure, interdisciplinary-science can help design and test this structure. During the workshop there was lots of excitement about what might result from our partnership, and I look forward to keeping you posted on the wide range of publications seeded here at the 2016 Coupled Natural-Human Systems Workshop in La Paz, BCS, Mexico.


Author: Alan Ruiz Berman
Education and Communications Coordinator at the CBMC.  

Alan is a recent MA graduate in Marine Conservation from the University of Wellington, NZ, and previously studied (Prescott College – Kino Bay) and worked (CEDO Intercultural, Puerto Peñasco) in the northern Gulf of California.  He has returned to the sea that first inspired him to join the CBMC team in La Paz, where he hopes to help bring awareness to the progressive science and community-based conservation work being undertaken by the GoC Marine Program team in Mexico.

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