MSEAS 2016 Beth Fulton: Maths is not the hard part of modelling marine socioecological systems

Including the human dimension in Integrated Ecosystem Assessments is the aim of MSEAS 2016 which takes place this week, 30 May–3 June in Brest, France.
Published: 31 May 2016

​​​​​​​​​​​​Beth Fulton​ is ​a Principal Research Scientist with CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere Flagship where she heads the ecosystem modelling team. This morning, her keynote talk "What’s easy and hard about modelling socioecological systems​" on ​​addressed the challenges of modelling socioecological systems in support of integrated assessments and sustainable multiple use management.

Maths is not the hard part of modelling marine socioecological systems

There have​ been a number of societal revolutions across the course of the last 10 000 years. Two of the most recent are the step change in use of natural resources associated with the Industrial Revolution and the Great Acceleration (a period beginning shortly after WWII were there was rapid industrialization and globalization of the human use footprint). While the oceans have not escaped the impacts of these revolutions, they have not experienced them to the same extent as terrestrial systems. Until now. Technological advances and terrestrial resource reduction means that more and more activities once undertaken on land are moving into the oceans. Marine ecosystems, particularly coastal ones, once the last bastion of hunter-gather human activities (in the form of wild capture fisheries) are being transformed by a plethora of human activities – including shipping, tourism, mining, energy generation, aquaculture, land reclamation, coastal development,​​ and conservation. ​​​

The sheer size of the global oceans means that​ science fictionesque visions of the mass reworking of the oceans, on the scale of the transformation of the world's landmasses,​ is still a flight of fantasy. Nonetheless, coastal oceans are becoming crowded and contested spaces. Falling back on the ​management methods we have used on land (and even then with mixed success) are exceptionally unlikely to work in the oceans. The fluid and three-dimensional nature of that realm presents unique challenges to our more static and two-dimensional oriented intuitive notions of system dynamics.

The situation however, is not hopeless. We can learn from our terrestrial experiences and marry them with the latest understanding of complex adaptive systems, non-linear dynamics, psychology, and modelling. We have a unique opportunity to confront change; better armed and more forewarned than at any time in history. The oceans are not an untouched canvas but they are one where we stand a chance of intelligently minimizing our Anthropocene footprint.

Evidence to date suggests taking a systems perspective to marine management is the most effective approach. This management goes by many names, with the most common being ecosystem-based management, integrated coastal zone and oceans management. These approaches are now considered the global standard for management of increasingly crowded multiple-use marine areas.

While academic (e.g. modelling) studies have demonstrated that integrated management is the only means of reliably achieving sustainability under cumulative impacts of global change, the execution of integrated management is more problematic. For instance, management of this kind is dependent on assessments that explicitly reconcile the effects and interactions of all the active sectors in the region. Pulling together such information across all human sectors as well as the biophysical parts of the system is not a trivial exercise. The majority, if not all, of extant risk assessment approaches struggle under the interactive, interconnected, and non-linear features of these complex systems, with many widely used approaches defaulting to linear overlays of uses or focusing on multiple instances of a particular use, putting aside other uses.

One promising approach that may act as a launch point is dynamic socioecological modelling which has been (surprisingly) successful. While early examples of models marring the biophysical and human realms of marine systems have existed for decades, such modelling methods are not yet widespread or mature, though critical momentum is building.

More than a century of quantitative modelling means that science is reasonably well equipped when it comes to modelling local or individual scale physical and ecological processes. Interest in large scale change (primarily climate change) and global trade and economics means there is also a reasonable grasp on how to effectively represent global scale physical processes and some aspects of economics. The bigger capability gaps exist at the intermediate scales (across all disciplines), around cross-scale processes and representing variability and extreme events. While unusual or rare events are the focus of our storytelling, modelling has tended to focus more on the mean state.

The gaps that are most rapidly capturing the research imagination appear around the social and cultural aspects of wellbeing and behavioural drivers. Capturing these in models is a growing research domain, facilitated in many ways by increased computational capacity and the flourishing of approaches such as agent-based modelling.

Interestingly, the dynamical evolution of the management process itself is the most poorly represented part of the entire socioecological domain, with few if any effective models of institutional dynamics. Arguably this will actually be the most important if integrated management is to be realized. Experience to date suggests that while tractably modelling socioecological systems is a challenge, some of the greatest hurdles to effective management are based in the skepticism of the decision makers and the long shadow of historical institutional structures and management conventions.

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​Beth Fulton, CSIRO, Australia addressed MSEAS on modelling marine socioecological systems​.

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MSEAS 2016 Beth Fulton: Maths is not the hard part of modelling marine socioecological systems

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