Diversification, Portfolio Effects, and the Sustainability of Fishing Communities

It has become increasingly apparent that biological complexity stabilizes many key ecosystem processes and increases the reliability of resource flows to humans. While discussed extensively in the ecological literature, the extent to which biocomplexity translates into tangible social and economic benefits to communities and their economies remains essentially unexplored. Our research will investigate how the biocomplexity of fisheries ecosystems translates into social and economic attributes of the human communities that exploit these ecosystems. Because human activities often feed back to affect the biocomplexity of ecosystems, we will further explore how human effects on the inherent variability of ecosystems affect the socio-economics of human communities. By coupling our understanding of how biocomplexity affects humans, and how human actions affect natural system biocomplexity, we will be in a position to inform efficient biocomplexity policy. While the methods, design, and results of this research program will be genera1izable across a range of coupled human and natural systems, we focus on the salmon-producing ecosystems of Western Alaska where we have extensive knowledge of the natural biocomplexity of the ecosystems, where the regional socio economic activities are supported almost exclusively by fisheries, and where tight feedbacks exist between natural and human components of the ecosystems. These features make these particular systems highly tractable to integrated bioeconomic assessment and modeling.

We seek to understand the interactions between the ecological dynamics of salmon ecosystems and the social and economic benefits to people who rely on salmon for their livelihoods in Western Alaska. In particular we are interested in understanding how the reliability of annual salmon returns, as determined by the biocomplexity of salmon stocks and their watersheds, affects the long-term economic performance of fisheries and the ability of local residents to participate salmon fisheries. We will also explore how management strategies should change as multiple ecosystem objectives are included into policy. In particular, current management objectives are focused narrowly on maximizing biological yield to commercial fisheries without consideration for the ecological and associated economic benefits of salmon in freshwater ecosystems (e.g., via sport fishing). Further, we will assess the degree to which fishermen and their communities benefit from the opportunity to generalize their efforts to exploit multiple species and multiple ecosystems as an alternative to the specialization that current management systems tend to encourage. This work will provide key insights into the complex interactions between social-economic dynamics and the ecological dynamics of fisheries and other coupled natural-human ecosystems.

Lead Investigator: