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Award Detail

Doing Business As Name:San Diego State University Foundation
  • Matthew Lauer
  • (619) 594-0978
Award Date:09/06/2013
Estimated Total Award Amount: $ 218,486
Funds Obligated to Date: $ 218,486
  • FY 2013=$218,486
Start Date:10/01/2013
End Date:09/30/2016
Transaction Type:Grant
Awarding Agency Code:4900
Funding Agency Code:4900
CFDA Number:47.050
Primary Program Source:040100 NSF RESEARCH & RELATED ACTIVIT
Award Title or Description:Coastal SEES (Track 1), Collaborative: Adaptive Capacity, Resilience, and Coral Reef State Shifts in Social-ecological Systems
Federal Award ID Number:1325554
DUNS ID:073371346
Program:SEES Coastal
Program Officer:
  • Michael Sieracki
  • (703) 292-7585

Awardee Location

Street:5250 Campanile Drive
City:San Diego
County:San Diego
Awardee Cong. District:53

Primary Place of Performance

Organization Name:San Diego State University
Street:5500 Campanile Dr.
City:San Diego
County:San Diego
Cong. District:53

Abstract at Time of Award

This project will assess resilience in a coral reef social-ecological system. Over the last several decades, reefs around the Pacific island of Mo'orea, French Polynesia, have consistently reassembled to coral dominance after being impacted by major perturbations. Resilience to disturbance is a key component of coastal sustainability, as it maintains the reefs in a state capable of providing critical ecosystem services. The resilience of reefs in Mo'orea is particularly striking, given that coral reefs in many regions have experienced abrupt and potentially irreversible shifts from a coral dominated state, with complex structure and a rich fish community, to a macroalgae dominated state with fewer fish. This project will contribute to more sustainable management of coral reefs by identifying pathways that confer resilience, highlighting emerging vulnerabilities, and suggesting policy initiatives in areas such as integrated coastal zone management and sustainable development planning. An integrative social and natural science approach will be employed that addresses place-based questions about resilience, sustainability and adaptive capacity of coastal systems. A framework will be developed for addressing more complex questions about the Mo'orea social-ecological system, and this will provide a model for the integration of ecology and social science in other coastal systems. Research results will be disseminated broadly through stakeholder workshops, and graduate students will be engaged in all aspects of the work. While the dynamics of state shifts are fundamental to understanding the resilience and long-term sustainability of coral reef social-ecological systems, the interplay between anthropogenic and ecological feedbacks is poorly understood in these systems. Systems with high population densities, widespread coastal development and intense resource exploitation typically show declines in the critical adaptive capacities that underpin resilience to local environmental variability. However, Mo'orea has maintained its resilience despite rapid development. This project will explore how the complex feedbacks in the Mo'orea coral reef social-ecological system maintain its capacity to withstand large-scale ecological disturbances. The study will involve interdisciplinary collaboration between social and natural scientists. Anthropological fieldwork focusing on the human dimensions of coral reef use, traditional governance, and indigenous ecological knowledge, will document how local communities perceive, respond to, and manage changes in ecosystem state. Ecological models will describe the dynamics of coral, algal and fish communities, including the feedbacks that make these communities susceptible to abrupt shifts in ecosystem state. These components will be integrated in a systems modeling framework that includes feedbacks both within and between the human and natural communities, quantitatively modeling how humans change their behavior as a function of ecosystem state and how the ecosystem is affected in turn by human activities. A key objective is to bridge the gap between data collected by social scientists and the dynamic ecosystem models developed by ecologists, as this is crucial to understanding the resilience and long-term sustainability of coastal social-ecological systems worldwide. This project is supported under NSF's Coastal SEES (Science, Engineering and Education for Sustainability) program.

Publications Produced as a Result of this Research

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Leenhardt, P. Lauer, M. Madi Moussa, R. Holbrook, S.J. Rassweiler, A. Schmitt, R.J. Claudet, J. "Complexities and uncertainties in transitioning small-scale coral reef fisheries" Frontiers in Marine Science, v.3, 2016, p..

Project Outcomes Report


This Project Outcomes Report for the General Public is displayed verbatim as submitted by the Principal Investigator (PI) for this award. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this Report are those of the PI and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation; NSF has not approved or endorsed its content.

Coral reefs provide critical ecosystem services to coastal human populations who depend on them for their livelihoods, and they are also among the most threatened coastal systems.  Until recently, coral reefs worldwide demonstrated the capacity to recover from disturbances such as cyclones that cause widespread loss of live coral.  Reefs were ecologically resilient in that coral would become re-established in the years following a disturbance.  However, increasingly coral reefs have been observed to transition to a state where seaweeds, not live coral, dominate the landscape.  The causes of these state shifts have been attributed to a combination of human-induced drivers that lower the ecological resilience, with overfishing and nutrient loading hypothesized to be key drivers, as both can foster growth of seaweeds.  Although reefs in many regions are shifting to a seaweed-dominated state, some reefs appear to exhibit higher levels of local social-ecological resilience, allowing them to avoid persistent state shifts.  This is the case on the South Pacific island of Moorea, French Polynesia.  Over the past several decades the coral communities of Moorea have been subjected to repeated disturbances, including cyclones, coral bleaching, and outbreaks of predatory crown-of-thorns sea stars (COTS).  In each case, these have resulted in tremendous loss of coral but the reef has returned to coral dominance within about a decade.

The central aim of this research was to better understand the adaptive capacities of Moorea’s social ecological systems that enable the coral reefs to return to coral dominance following large-scale disturbances.  To do this, we employed an integrative social and natural science approach that addressed specific place-based questions about resilience, sustainability and adaptive capacity of coastal systems, while developing a framework that allowed us to explore more complex questions about the Moorea social ecological system, as well as provide a model for the integration of ecology and social science in other coastal systems.  Our research activities included three approaches.  First, we conducted surveys of hundreds of coastal households and fishers to gain a better understanding of fishing practices and underlying decision-making.  Surveys were conducted in three districts in Moorea that vary with respect to coastal development and amount of tourism.  Second, we performed a two-year long market analysis of fish being caught and sold on the island.  This entailed weekly roadside surveys of fish being sold and interviews with each seller to obtain information about the location where fish were caught.  This information was compared to availability of different species of fish on the reef as estimated in surveys conducted by scuba divers.  Third, we developed ecological and spatial bio-economic models that explored the interaction between environmental disturbance, fishing practices, and reef resilience.

The research project had a participatory, integrative-training component that provided hands-on experience for three graduate students.  As part of that training the students had the unique experience of working alongside and in collaboration with the PIs and were exposed to their different expertise: modeling, marine science, and anthropology.  The students also received hands-on field training as they conducted the household surveys and interviews in Moorea.  The graduate students also attended a workshop held for fishers, stakeholders and members of the public that the project team hosted during July 2015 in Moorea.

This research contributes to our understanding of the socio-cultural, economic, and environmental influences on ecological knowledge and is providing insight into the social dimensions of the ecological resilience demonstrated by Moorea’s coral reefs.  Our findings will guide local community groups on Moorea and other locations with coral reefs in developing sustainable fishing practices along with strategies for conservation and management of marine resources.  To disseminate the project’s findings as widely as possible, the Principal Investigators and graduate students have given numerous presentations at national and international conferences, scientific workshops, and public meetings, as well as produced technical publications in the scientific literature and graduate theses.



Last Modified: 12/28/2016
Modified by: Matthew Lauer

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