SAVANNAH, Ga. - The world's oceans desperately need the type of large-scale, ecosystem-based management that has gained broad support in the terrestrial areas of the U.S., researchers said today - the marine equivalent of seeing the forest instead of the trees.
But the cohesive management of activities affecting "large marine ecosystems" such as the western coastal waters of the United States should be based on integrated knowledge and a research base that is far more comprehensive than what exists today, said Jane Lubchenco, the Wayne and Gladys Valley Professor of Marine Biology at Oregon State University, speaking Friday at the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America.
"Too often in the past we have managed activities on the basis of a local problem or a particular species, rather than the larger ecosystems," Lubchenco said.
"And in some cases, even when we've tried to look at the big picture we didn't have sufficient understanding to do it well. In view of the rapid rate of change in marine ecosystems, it's now essential that we manage activities that affect oceans in a more holistic sense and develop the research programs to inform those decisions."
In her ESA presentation, Lubchenco cited the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans, or PISCO, as a pioneering and successful attempt to begin to create the knowledge base that could make marine ecosystem-based management possible.
PISCO, a collaborative effort of OSU and three other universities, is using grants totaling $30 million from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and others to study the near-shore regions of the Pacific Coast over a period of years. It could form a model for more programs of this type, Lubchenco said.
"The type of data we're producing through PISCO research - which links physical, biological, climatic and other information through time and large ocean areas - is generating quite a bit of enthusiasm from many scientists," Lubchenco said. "We've had researchers come to us from Maine, Alaska, Chile and England, and ask how they could create similar programs for other marine ecosystems.
"Clearly, we have a powerful approach here that could serve as a prototype," she said.
Two major national reports on the state of U.S. waters and the global oceans are coming out this year - one released in June from the Pew Oceans Commission and another expected toward the end of the year from the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy.
"The two commissions are highlighting many similar issues," Lubchenco said. "These include the need for marine ecosystem-based management, better stewardship of oceans, regional governance, a better scientific knowledge base and improved education of the public."
These and other efforts, she said, demonstrate the benefits of management based on large marine areas of the oceans. A large marine ecosystem is a cohesive area defined by ocean currents and similar marine plant and animal life - such as the Gulf of Mexico or the California Current Ecosystem on the western coast of the U.S. Effective management of activities affecting such large areas will require new mechanisms to integrate the wide variety of factors influencing the ecosystem, such as fishing, mining, agriculture, forestry, and coastal development.
Problems to be addressed include collapsing fisheries, invasive species, the impacts of climate change and pollution.
"It is becoming increasingly obvious that coastal oceans are affected by both land-based and ocean-based activities," Lubchenco said, "and we need new ways to understand how various activities affect the status of coastal marine ecosystems and the benefits they provide to humans."
Oceans pose a special challenge, Lubchenco said, because they have a wide range of natural variability, are directly affected by climatic forces, and are far more complex than has been appreciated in the past. Only a comprehensive body of research studying many issues over a wide range of space and time will provide the type of information needed to answer critical questions, she said.
Just recently, for instance, have PISCO scientists begun to document how the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, a 20-30 year ocean cycle, can affect everything in the ocean from algal blooms to upwelling, mollusks and salmon. One of the great management challenges, she said, is to incorporate an understanding of cycles like this into the decisions about coastal development, fisheries and more.
"It's true that we already know much more about our ocean ecosystems than is being reflected in our management of them," Lubchenco said. "It's also true that there's still a lot to learn, and for that we need broad-scale research programs over huge areas and many years, linking ocean and terrestrial processes, physical events , and biological and social consequences."
With that type of knowledge, enlightened policies and coordinated management, Lubchenco said, it's reasonable to believe that both oceans and the terrestrial systems to which they are closely linked can produce a wide variety of products and services for generations to come.