Developing the Science to Help Managers Address Shifting Marine Species

Developing the Science to Help Managers Address Shifting Marine Species
Boats in harbor
Mado El Khouly Unsplash

How do we unstick a sticky issue?

It may sound like a childish question, but it’s one we frequently ask ourselves. Climate-driven shifts in marine species is the epitome of what we call a sticky issue because the associated challenges for fisheries managers are cross-cutting, cross-disciplinary, and contentious.

As oceans warm, fish are moving into new areas – for example, poleward or offshore -- at an increasingly rapid rate, and in many places, regulations can’t keep pace. With ecosystems, species, and the social and economic fabric of coastal communities at stake, managers are struggling to balance the need to respond to changing conditions with fairness and transparency.

Lenfest Ocean Program funds the science that helps managers unlock solutions to complex, sticky, issues. We identify research using a simple but powerful tool: dialogue. We spend a significant amount of time talking with those on the front lines of research and decision-making to understand not just priority information needs, but also the ways that information can fit in management processes and help decision-makers and stakeholders overcome hurdles.

Shifting fish stocks – a growing problem with a complicated blend of management, scientific, economic and social dimensions – presented an opportunity to think differently. What if instead of individual dialogue, we brought people from across those dimensions together? And could such a process help us better identify the research that could really help?

Convening an Open and Generous Discussion 

In October 2019, we convened an Ideas Lab, an intensive and highly structured event meant to encourage open, creative thinking and candid small-group discussion to generate research project ideas. We knew from the outset we needed diverse participants, including fishermen, non-governmental organization staff, independent and government researchers from various fields, as well as managers from state and federal agencies. We also sought individuals who would be willing and able to share their expertise and learn from others.

We held an open call for applications and selected 30 participants out of over 150 submissions. The 30 finalists were charged with developing research projects that could inform pathways forward by bringing new thinking to the issue of shifting fish stocks in changing marine environments. Over the course of the three days, guest speakers presented on various issues, while attendees created and categorized research questions. Groups formed around topics and project ideas began to emerge.

In addition, a team of mentors helped guide the conversations and connect ideas to active management conversations. These mentors shared their expertise in fisheries management, law, economics, and ecology. They helped participants translate concepts and research questions into project ideas that could engage decision-makers.

Bringing Diverse Participants Together

The Ideas Lab was not an attempt to exhaustively catalog all research questions related to shifting marine species. Rather, we hoped that by bringing together a diverse group of participants who work on different aspects of the issue, innovative research ideas would emerge that could accelerate real-world solutions.

By the end of the event, groups developed research project ideas across several themes:

  • Improving and expanding collection and integration of data for monitoring environmental changes and shifting stocks;
  • Understanding the ecosystem-level impacts of climate change and how those might affect shifting species;
  • Adapting stock assessment methodologies to incorporate a changing environment;
  • The governance challenge of balancing management flexibility with accountability in a dynamic environment; and
  • Identifying community-level vulnerabilities, challenges, and opportunities that shifting species will bring.

We are now developing some of these projects for funding, including working with scientists, managers, and stakeholders to refine research questions and methods, and to integrate end users into the design. But we recognize that no one project, or selection of projects, will unstick this issue. As we reflect on the Ideas Lab and invest in new research, these efforts will continue to involve many people with different types of expertise and experience all working together.

To watch our recent virtual panel on the Ideas Lab, download materials, and keep up with new projects as they’re announced, visit our website.

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