New paper: Ecosystem services and community based coral reef management institutions in post blast-fishing Indonesia

Link here to the journal. Here is my copy of the PDF: Dunning, Kelly Heber (2014) “Ecosystem Services and Community Based Coral Reef Management regimes in Post Blast-fishing Indonesia.

Thanks to my supervisors, Dr. Larry Susskind, and Dr. Porter Hoagland for help revising.


Why your vote for The Palm Beach Soil and Water Conservation District really matters if you care about Florida’s reefs and coasts

I wrote this for a non-scientific audience.

I am a diver, I know a lot of people who dive, and I know a lot of those people detest state level politics. I think this is a really big problem for us folks who love Florida’s coasts, its oceans, reefs, and fish. The way we look after our natural resources is a political and economic choice that we have a lot of impact on based on how we vote. I believe that people who care a lot about the environment tend to think that its management is the job of technical people, scientists and engineers. But I would argue that the people you vote for hold the power to utterly ruin the way we look after out natural resources, by setting anemic budgets, non-existent allocations, and removing agendas altogether, in effect decimating management organizations at the state level. Rick Scott, I’m looking at you. I would also say that these are incredibly myopic decisions, since so much of the state’s economy is completely dependent on healthy and functioning ecosystems. Environmentalism is not an afterthought, it is the framework on which our state economy gets built.

Governor, judiciary, amendments aside, as many local newspapers already do a pretty good job analyzing the environmental impacts of these candidates, I am here to write about the little known Soil and Water Conservation District. As somebody who cares about Florida’s healthy coral reefs, fisheries, and coasts, why does this particular elected position have so much importance to Palm Beach County voters?

Loggerhead on Gulfstream Reef, Delray Florida

Loggerhead on Gulfstream Reef, Delray Florida

The Palm Beach Soil and Water Conservation District is the local government agency that helps farmers implement best management practices in agriculture. Agricultural best management policies reduce the amount of pesticides, fertilizers, animal waste, and other pollutants entering the Florida water resource system. What does that have to do with our reefs, fish, and coasts?

Agricultural runoff from land sources (farms) is one of the biggest causes of serious stress to Florida’s reefs. Runoff has two components that cause major biological problems: sediment and nutrients. Sediment clouds our coastal waters and blocks reefs from their critical life source: sunlight. Sunlight is required for a photosynthetic algae living in the coral tissue (“photosynthetic” is just another word for when a plant turns light into food). These algae are a critical part of the coral animal, and if they are not making food, the coral cannot grow and continue to be part of a healthy reef. They also give coral their color by the way.

Nutrients from the agricultural runoff also increase when best management practices for soil and water are not followed. This results in unchecked growth of algae that coats coral reefs and also blocks the sunlight. In addition, when the microscopic plantlife throughout the coastal waters (“phytoplankton”) have a lot of nutrients to work with, they bloom in full force, die, and deplete the oxygen that is naturally dissolved in the water. This kills large amounts of fish in a very short time, coating the beaches and shorelines with rotting fish. This has impacts on commercial and recreational fishing, and similar scale blooms have been linked to record breaking manatee die offs. Some algal blooms are natural, but many, with increased nutrient supply are not.

The definitive scientific study of excess sediment and nutrient content on coral reefs shows that when runoff increases, so too does coral mortality, algal blooms, and muddy water. Some things that decrease with runoff are: coral cover on the reef, the strength of the hard calcium carbonate skeletal part of the coral (i.e. more brittle corals), and the diversity of corals (Fabricius 2004). More diverse reefs lead to healthier reefs that are more capable of absorbing shocks, like disease or a big storm with waves that hammer the reef. Think of it like the backup players on a football team, talented and numerous backups make for a stronger team during an unexpected injury. When you lack strong backups, you have the Florida gators 2013 season.

The agricultural land in Palm Beach County is a significant source of runoff that not only impacts our near shore reefs, but also those of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (LaPointe et al. 2004). Thus, the choices we make have far reaching impacts that in turn, affect the dive/marine/fishing economy in the entire state of Florida. This is an industry in which millions of Florida residents make a living.

Economically speaking, we need healthy reefs even if we don’t dive. Reefs protect and buffer coastal settlements (our homes) from the big storms we get during hurricane season. Reefs also buffer settlements from the constant wave action that has produced hometown surfing greats like Kelly Slater. Reefs provide nursery space for commercially valuable fish species to reach a size where we are allowed to fish them. And most relevant to me, as graduate student living in frosty Cambridge, MA, they attract a lot of money (millions and millions of dollars) in tourism revenue each year from divers, snorkelers, and visitors to our national parks, beaches, and barrier islands.

Foureye Butterfly fish and a barrel sponge off Briny Breezes reef

Foureye Butterfly fish and a barrel sponge off Briny Breezes reef

The Palm Beach Soil and Water Conservation District helps farmers implement best management practices for decreasing runoff, sediment, and excess nutrients that end up making their way to our coasts and our ocean environments. It is an education-based agency, whose elected board does not receive a salary. It is not public knowledge how their budget gets spent (spare generalities, i.e. “we spend it on outreach”), or how effective their education programs actually are in practice. As we all know, you can print as many brochures as you want, but whether or not they actually have an impact is another thing.

There are two candidates: Eva Webb and Karl Dickey. Here are my thoughts on them. Originally, all of the Gadsden Flags scared me off from Karl’s site, as Libertarians tend to reduce Florida’s environmental problems to a false equivalency between private property and conservation, a gross oversimplification that ignores many of the hard-to-count economic and financial benefits that healthy environments offer people and their livelihoods. He is not that type of libertarian though. He is plugged into environmental thinking, has some great ideas about good governance and accountability, and has vision on how to reshape the Palm Beach Soil and Water Conservation District to meet the needs of an increasingly urbanized area surrounded by not only agriculture but also fragile ecosystems. Despite my effort, I could not get ahold of Eva Webb. From what I gather, she has ties to the Florida Farm Bureau (Assistant Director of Field Services), an agricultural lobbying/interest group. Just to put it in perspective, the national level American Farm Bureau called their 2010 meeting “”Global Warming: A Red Hot Lie?” Yikes. However, a big part of the Palm Beach Soil and Water Conservation District remit is to engage stakeholders, and perhaps her ties to agricultural interest groups may help with that. Perhaps it is a conflict of interest. I tried asking, and I don’t have an answer.

Whoever you vote for, just make sure you vote. Divers are a significant part of the marine economy, which is in turn a significant part of Florida’s golden goose: the tourism industry.

Papers I mentioned in this blog entry:

Fabricius, K. E. (2005). Effects of terrestrial runoff on the ecology of corals and coral reefs: review and synthesis. Marine pollution bulletin50(2), 125-146.

Lapointe, B. E., Barile, P. J., & Matzie, W. R. (2004). Anthropogenic nutrient enrichment of seagrass and coral reef communities in the Lower Florida Keys: discrimination of local versus regional nitrogen sources. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology308(1), 23-58.

Moray Eel off Briny Breezes Reef, Boynton Beach

Moray Eel off Briny Breezes Reef, Boynton Beach

Coral reef communities: the Malaysian experience

I just recently wrapped up several weeks of fieldwork in Malaysia’s Tioman Island. Tioman is a major dive tourism destination located in a government designated Marine Park some 20 years old. With dozens of reefs to dive, I had two major components to my field work: take representative ecological surveys of some of the most popular dive sites and then administer surveys and socio-economic based interviews to stakeholders in the hand full of villages that fringe the island.

Given the wave of new and cheap photography options for underwater imagining, I adapted my ecological survey methods from English et. al 1997’s timed swim technique involving a fish census and hard cover examination at predetermined time intervals. I did this with a GoPro, and instead of a fish survey, as my research team was limited to one, I looked at an indicator far easier for a single diver with camera in hand to assess: percent living cover of hard corals in 1x1m quadrats.

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An image from my survey of Labas Dive site reef

A major criticism of interdisciplinary research that looks at human-environment interactions is that either the human (socio-economic) or environment (ecological) indicators are ignored in the process of inquiry. My first round of studies conducted in Bali last summer relied on coarse grained UNEP assessments of reef health in two Balinese communities. This time around, I am using my own assessments based on percentage hard cover. Living hard coral cover is a valuable indicator as it 1) provides a visual motive for divers to come and contribute to the local economy and 2) a critical function in the ecosystem.

My surveys of stakeholders ranged from local dive masters, boat operators, tank boys, dive shop owners, marine parks officers, ferry boatsmen, and so on. I asked people questions about how their community looks after their reefs all the while knowing the reefs are a critical piece of the local economy. Ultimately, I will have looked at 8 cases across SE Asia by the conclusion of my fieldwork, and will be able to make claims about specific community attributes that tend to also accompany healthy reefs.

Reef Communities in the Dynamite-Cyanide Era: Field notes from Indonesia

I am authoring several blog entries on my summer 2013 field work in villages that depend on coral reefs in Indonesia.  This one covers local reef management, destructive fishing, and how we can look at successful villages and try to copy their success in neighboring villages. This work was funded by the MIT Carroll Wilson grant.

Dynamite and cyanide, used by willing fishermen to quickly kill large numbers of reef fish, are alarmingly common fishing methods on the reefs of developing costal states like Indonesia. Dynamite or blast fishing is easy and cheap; bombs are made from readily available materials nearby. Following a blast, scores of fish, stunned or dead, are rapidly collected from the surface. In cyanide fishing, Sodium cyanide and bleach are sprayed onto fish to stun them.  Fishermen later fetch large sums of money on the Western saltwater aquarium market and from high-end Asian restaurants. Both cyanide fishing and dynamiting cause extensive damage to corals that take centuries to recover. Many perpetrators live in poverty and are acting on large incentives from reef-loving aquarium owners in the West, or Asian luxury seafood demand.

The reef-dependent villages that line the coasts of Northern Bali’s Buleleng Regency (pop. Half a million) are exemplary communities recovering from the bombing and cyanide fishing prevalent through the late 1990s. I spoke with over a hundred stakeholders who view the reef as a key part of their livelihood. These people were located across 5 villages: Anturan, Tukad Mungga, Kalibukbuk, and Pemuteran, and represented a range of stakeholders from boat-makers, to village chiefs, to dive-boat skippers, to fishermen. Pemuteran was a success case, with a vibrant and resurgent reef, and an invested village. The others had pieces of a success story, but were lagging behind in overall conservation efforts. Universally, villagers noted a significant downward trend in the prevalence of destructive methods. They lamented the slow growth of the corals returning millimeter-by-millimeter following dynamite destruction. They were furious that much of the destructive methods were from migrant fisherman with no long-term incentive to conserve that particular village’s reef.

Some expressed worry over the declining tourism due to dissatisfaction with the village’s dead reefs. Some former dynamiters expressed regret at their previous choices.   One resort owner, who had personally chased dynamiters off of the reef in front of his resort dozens of times, cautioned against too much optimism,  “I was diving off Menjangan National Park last month and heard bombs going off right by the tour boats. The problem has shrunk, yes, but there’s still a problem. That’s a national park, this village’s reef doesn’t have those same protections.”

So what is the best way to protect the local reef if national park designation is not strong enough? Vigilance from the communities that live within sight-range of the reefs and the corresponding will to act as stewards is a first step. My interviews with the Pecelan Laut, or village-based sea police in the success-case village of Pemuteran, reinforced the idea that local, community-based solutions to destructive fishing are far more effective than bans coming from national government in Jakarta.


Pecelan Laut in their office on the beach in Pemuteran

Practical means to ensure enforce-ability is one reason local management is more effective. As mentioned by many stakeholders, people from other villages or even other countries have the largest incentive come in and blow up their reefs. The Pecelan Laut patrol the reefs further off Pemuteran’s shore several times per week.  Their office, directly on the beach, has become a de-facto coffee spot. Men, young and old, from the village can be seen around the clock relaxing, smoking, and enjoying coffee all the while keeping an eye on what they see as their reef. Next to the Pecelan office is a small but effective library for information on the village and their reefs. It is also a spot where tourists can donate to ongoing conservation efforts. The Pecelan are all volunteers, but they must apply for the job, and there is a universal perception of the eliteness of the position throughout the village.

The success of the Pecelan Laut in Pemuteran can and must spread through Indonesia and other reef-rich countries. The majority of respondents attributed the “culture of conservation” reinforced by the Pecelan as a product of sustained investment and slow growth of tourism bit by bit. Many sited socially-environmentally conscious resort owners as a major reason for success. One resort owner laughed as he told me the local reef is coming back, and the villagers are invested in protection, simply because Lonely Planet Tour Guides kept their village’s name out of their book long enough for them to put strong conservation institutions in place—and they liked it that way. He likened the fast-paced growth that characterized the other villages in my study to a death blow, bringing in too many people without time early  on to organize a plan for conservation.


Ketut, a villager in Anturan discusses declining fish stocks and local conservation efforts

Strong institutions (systems of rules and enforcement) at the local level are not cheap and they don’t come easy—furthermore they must come from the community. Many stakeholders in the other villages that have not seen Pemuteran’s success noted the  common government educational outreach programs. They lamented that the outreach was not sustained in a way that resulted in village-wide buy-in to act as reef stewards. I concur, and would argue that an education gap is not the problem. In villages without Pecelan Laut (those with struggling reefs) there is widespread knowledge that reefs are valuable as a long-term asset, but the jump from knowledge to practice was not visible.

On an early morning boat trip I took with one of the captains in Tukad Mungga, I watched him pick floating trash off the reef where his divers were, and throw it over the other side of the boat. When I asked him why he didn’t bring it back in he laughed and said “we do reef cleanup for that.”The same boat captain told me the day before that he gave his guests a 2 minute talk before all trips to the reef explaining what they can and cannot do for conservation’s sake. This was notably absent as well. This is not to blame the villagers for overuse and accompanying degradation. Most of the demand for reef use is Western, and on countless trips to the reefs I saw European tourists (who should know better) touching marine life and removing it to the surface.

What is to be done? Since groups like Conservation International are siting the area of North Bali as a future marine protected area (MPA) it is my hope this will bring financial support for continued action in villages with it. Something as simple as having a brick and mortar office and a title, gave the young men acting as Pecelan Laut a sense of purpose and pride. This success has potential to spread around Bali since Pecelan is rooted in village and religious culture. Additionally, the gathering point of the beachfront library/Pecelan office is a way to educate tourists about the village’s personal, unique, and dynamic struggle towards reef management.  Information kept in spots like these help visitors and locals track a village’s progress in a transparent way, incentivizing tourists to pay a little extra to help the community in its quest. Plus it gives interested locals a place to drink coffee and keep an eye on their reefs.

These are all very small and relatively cheap suggestions at enhancing village-based stewardship by looking at a successful case, and trying to re-create the case in neighboring villages.These small centers of reef knowledge and maintenance serve communities by lending legitimacy and pride to the idea of protecting the reef, and could help translate their knowledge on the need for conservation into day to day practice.

coral reef degradation in developing countries: complex causes

Here I use political ecology is a body of theoretical tool to analyze coral reef management.  Since its beginnings in the 1970’s, political ecology questioned the so-called “narratives of degradation.” In the two cases I outlined here in previous entries, “narratives of degradation,” were stories told by elites about a natural resource and how it would be managed.  They often involve how the poorest people who live closest to the resource and depend on it directly, are also abusing the resource.  This abuse legitimates removing resource control from locals and shifting it to government control or a private company’s control.  In the context of reefs, narratives of degradation keep the poorest members of the local community from accessing the reef for subsistence living.

In the two cases I reviewed, local fishermen were overextracting reef species to meet subsistence living needs and to meet a spike in demand created by an influx of tourists.  It begs the question—should the poorest and most vulnerable groups in a society be tasked with the responsibility of conservation, when we are asking them to not fish their main source of food? Or should we re-think macro level policy that leads to overextraction in the first place.  Government backed tourism to reefs and donors encouraging export-oriented projects are examples of this policy.

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In many instances, local people became tourism-based entrepreneurs.  They did not create a marine protected area for ecological reasons, but cordoned off the area for tourists.  This meant that the most vulnerable members of the village had their rights to fish cut off.   When large environmental NGO’s get involved in these local resource struggles, they push for conservation aims while ignoring provisioning needs of the poorest local citizens, disenfranchised from the reef’s resources.  Often they are portrayed as ignorant, unconcerned locals flagrantly disregarding the importance of a precious resource.  The reality is poverty, in its most extreme manifestations, forces many a hands in reef degradation.  Thus, protecting reefs and reducing poverty are the same goal.  A sample plan could be involving locals in paid schemes for reef monitoring and management, thereby increasing buy-in, knowledge, and livelihoods.

Political ecology forces us to think about multiple scales, and how scale affects degradation.  The struggle for subsistence fishing rights takes place on a local scale, but multilateral development banks that finance tourism operates on an international scale.  Resource conflicts result when action at one scale negatively affects access to the resource at another.

That’s not to say that community based natural resource management has been a silver bullet. Case studies have shown that when local communities are tasked with managing their resources, entrenched power structures award opportunities to well-connected, wealthier community members.