Boesch and lessons learned from Louisiana and the Chesapeake

Boesch, D. F. (2006). “Scientific requirements for in the restoration of Chesapeake Bay and Coastal Louisiana.” Engineering 26(1): 6-26.

Here Donald Boesch analyzes two ostensibly ecosystem based management programs based on four broad principles that are generally considered key to an ecosystem-based approach: 1) integration of multiple ecosystem components; 2) sustainability as a goal; 3) precautionary approach; and 4) adaptive methodologies. These are all very broad concepts with potential for multiple interpretations, as the author notes. The challenge he raises is then how can scientific advancements help with the practical application of these concepts?

Boesch starts with the idea that the real challenge for EBM is how to implement it in the field, and thus his focus on case studies in Louisiana and the Chesapeake. He then discusses how the four broad principles can be better applied to these cases through increased scientific input. For integration he points out that simulation models (run forward or backward) can be used to capture some key elements (e.g., the relationship between land use practices, runoff and nutrient loading in a bay), but that they still fail to provide a complete quantitative picture (e.g., we still can’t quantitatively connect nutrient loading in a bay to human health outcomes). Boesch notes that a major challenge here, from both the science and management sides, is that work (academic departments, journals, technical panels) tends to be fairly narrowly focused on one issue (e.g., toxic metals) rather than integrative from the start.

On the issue of sustainability, Boesch turns to “resilience” as a goal with perhaps a better chance of practical implementation. Invariably, this discussion raises the question of whether ecosystems have steady states that ecosystem properties (water quality, diversity, turnover, etc.) gravitate towards. My worry here is that it may be possible to note where an ecosystem has lost resilience (e.g., Louisiana in the 2005 hurricane season) or has declined to an undesirable state, but is it possible to design restoration with a particular resilient goal in mind?

Boesch notes that both in Louisiana and the Chesapeake the precautionary principle is mostly being applied in hindsight, focusing on the consequences of not reducing existing impacts rather than strictly on preventing future impacts.

On adaptive management Boesch importantly notes the difference between true adaptive management and “trial and error” management. In particular, a true adaptive management program must set explicit expectations and periodically monitoring how closely those expectations are being met, and make adjustments as necessary to bring expectations and reality closer. In responding to the recent blueprint for ocean research priorities in the US, several members of the Duke Nicholas School faculty and I pointed out the failure to explicitly differentiate adaptive management and “trial and error” as a weakness of the plan (available here). Boesch also points out the risk of being too reliant on predictive models in lieu of actual field data and monitoring in assessing the results of adaptive management.

Boesch offers five broad solutions for the scientific community, two of which are focused on institutions and norms in science and three focused on actual research areas. First, he argues that scientists should be more “solutions based”. This is always a tricky argument, given the institutional impediments (in funding, tenure granting and job candidate selection, for examples), but there are clearly both individual examples of people who have made this transition (e.g., Jane Lubchenco, Stuart Pimm) and institutional examples (Boesch points to the field of human health research). Second, Boesch calls for better bridging between science and management. I think many of the same institutional barriers apply here, especially with regard to training in most academic departments (if I may make a shameless plug here, the Nicholas School at Duke, to which I am a newcomer, seems to turn out a large number of well-trained scientists who end up in key marine management positions). Third, Boesch makes a plea for more predictive analyses, particularly with regard to thresholds of resilience in ecosystems. This seems like a particularly large (though important) task considering our current fairly basic understanding of resilience in ecosystems. Fourth, he argues for better scientific clarity on the issue of uncertainty and how to get beyond uncertainty as an impediment to progress. This is at the core of the science-politics interface with regard to the issue of climate change, as Stephen Schneider has often addressed. Finally, he calls for a more integrative approach to adaptive management including the direct comparison of different predictive models. This seems especially important in light of the ascendancy of Ecopath/Ecosim type models despite varying degrees of discomfort about the many assumptions that must be made in using them (sounds like a good topic for a debate here).

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