Breaking the code in social-ecological systems research

Graduate students affiliated with the Arizona State University’s Center for Behavior, Institutions and the Environment were active this summer organizing a global collaborative network of emerging researchers in the field of social ecological systems and common-pool resources with the goal of providing a more unified methodology to analyze and code coupled social-ecological systems (SES). Organized by Ute Brady and Elicia Ratajczyk from the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, a team of graduate students and post-docs hosted a multi-day workshop on July 5-8 2016, through the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) in Annapolis, Maryland.


The resulting workshop entitled “Breaking the Code: Synthesizing Coding Efforts for SES Research” involved 71 remote and onsite participants, including graduate students, post-doctoral researchers and faculty from sixteen universities in five different countries. ASU and the Center for Behavior, Institutions and the Environment were well represented, with four graduate students among the organizers (Ratajczyk, Brady, Mar Mancha-Cisneros, and Mady Tyson), one faculty member (J.M. Anderies) and two former affiliates (Jacopo Baggio, who is now an assistant professor at Utah State University, and Allain Barnett, assistant professor at the University of New Brunswick). The graduate student organizers held various satellite meetings before the workshop to increase the productivity and impact of the actual workshop.

In addition to the collaborative network that was developed, the group established a working group to support communication, resources, and advocacy for the network and an online collaboration platform. Several of the groups involved in the workshop have developed research agendas and outlines for the development of publications.

The work produced by this collaborative network of researchers will continue the legacy of the late Nobel Prize winner and CBIE founding director Elinor Ostrom, whose work inspired researchers around the world, many of whom have produced various and related datasets on social-ecological systems and common-pool resources which have yet to be organized.

Adaptation of biophysical principles for the design of marine reserves in the Gulf of California, Mexico


On March 10 – 12, 2015, a collaboration between Comunidad y Biodiversidad (COBI), The Nature Conservancy-Mexico (TNC-Mexico) and science coordination of the PANGAS Ecosystem Management project, along with the Gulf of California Marine Program, organized a meeting to adapt biophysical principles for the design of marine reserves in the Gulf of California for conservation, fisheries and adaptation to climate change. The meeting was held in the city of La Paz, BCS, Mexico, and brought together Mexican government agencies that oversee non-fishing areas from the fisheries (INAPESCA) and conservation (CONANP) approach, civil society organizations that promote the establishment of marine reserves in the Gulf of California (COBICEDOPRONATURA NOROESTENIPARAJA) and academics who conduct scientific research in marine reserves (UABCSCICIMARUniversity of ArizonaArizona State University).

Although there are several recomendaciones around the world on biophysical principles for the design of marine reserves in terms of habitat representation, protection of critical sites, shape, size, location, distance between reserves, recovery time, etc., it is unknown if these recommendations are transferable between different regions or if it is necessary to adapt them locally. For example, an effort led by Dr. Allison Green and collaborators in 2014 proposed a series of biophysical and ecological principles for the design of marine reserve networks in coral reefs of tropical zones. Scientific studies over the past decade have highlighted that the Gulf of California has unique oceanographic features characterized by seasonal oceanographic gyres that generate strong ocean currents that maintain a single direction during part of the year and then reverse completely the rest of the time. For species of fish and invertebrates that present pelagic larval stages during their development, the strong currents that maintain defined directions make the geographical distance between sites in the Gulf of California not a good indicator of biological connectivity. A better approximation, for example, are oceanographic distances, which are those that take into account the direction of the currents. According to the reproductive season of each species, those rocky reefs that are “upstream” are key because they act as sources that influence the production and export of larvae to all other “downstream” sites. In a system such as the Gulf of California, the establishment of marine reserves located upstream from the predominant oceanographic circulation (according to the reproductive season of the species to be protected) could result in a more effective and robust network of marine reserves when compared to a selection of sites downstream that are oceanographically isolated or randomly chosen.


During the workshop, the team of experts of the Gulf of California analyzed the available scientific information that could justify a local adaptation of the principles, as well as the current situation of the region, identified important information and research gaps, and prepared a draft of principles was defined considering the unique geological, oceanographic, ecological and evolutionary characteristics of the Gulf of California. This draft will serve as the basis for a scientific publication documenting the process of adapting design principles of marine reserves to the Gulf of California. A follow-up workshop was held on January 12-13, 2016 to finalize the draft and prepare a manuscript for publication.

This initiative was supported mainly by The Nature Conservancy (TNC)Comunidad y Biodiversidad, A.C. (COBI) and the science coordination of the PANGAS project, and is funded by the TNC’s Marine Initiative of the Gulf of California and the North Pacific.