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Understanding Connectivity Conservation in the Context of Social-Ecological Systems: Perspectives from the Caribbean

Sunday, January 11, 2015 @ 10:01 PM

Maintenance of functional ecosystems is an increasingly difficult task, as the demand for space to carry out “development activities” degrades and fragments ecosystems. Not only are critical habitats for plants and animals degraded or lost, but critical ecosystem services (such as aquifer recharge, filtering water and air, reducing pest outbreaks, reducing flooding and erosion, maintaining productive soils, supporting fisheries, and providing food and medicines) are often severely impaired or lost.

Establishment of protected areas is a strategy to conserve the most important or threatened ecosystems. However, with protected areas covering only 15.4% of the world’s terrestrial area and 3.4% of the global ocean area (Juffe-Bignoli et al, 2014), conservation strategies cannot be based solely, or even primarily, on protected areas management. Although protected areas provide economic benefits to more than one billion people worldwide (Bertzky et al, 2012), as the general landscape is degraded, there is increasing demand by economic special interests that protected areas be opened for greater levels of exploitation.

It is now widely accepted that sustainable development is best pursued by balancing sustained economic growth, social equity, and environmental protection. In that context, exploitation of the planet’s last ecological refuges in pursuit of narrow economic interests cannot be considered an appropriate development strategy.

Enter the practice of Connectivity Conservation. Connectivity conservation is a concept and strategy that focuses on establishing linkages/corridors between fragmented ecosystems, maintaining ecosystem functions in threatened areas, and restoring and re-connecting habitats and ecosystems as necessary to ensure biodiversity protection and maintenance of ecosystem services. As such, not only does the strategy address biodiversity loss and deteriorating environmental health, it is also meant to improve the resilience of ecosystems to a range of human and natural threats.

Therefore, connectivity conservation initiatives must necessarily address both ecosystem dynamics and the economic imperatives that resulted in the degradation of the ecosystem in the first place.

At its simplest, ecological connectivity can be viewed as movement between different parts of an ecosystem (such as movement of fish and other marine species between coral reefs and open water or seagrass beds for food or shelter). A similar form of connectivity is movement that takes place between adjacent ecosystems, such as between coral reefs and mangrove wetlands, or between wetlands and adjacent pastures or forests.

Mangrove Lagoon, St. Thomas USVI

Such movement can involve animals moving for food or shelter, or it can be movement during one stage of the life cycle of a particular species. For example, species of freshwater shrimp that hatch in the coastal area and return to streams for the adult phase of their lives. Sometimes that movement is active, as with animals such as turtles, or passive, as with corals and some species of fish. The movement between adjacent ecosystems also occurs for the non-living component of ecosystems, as shown by nutrients, sediments, and chemicals.

This simple aspect of connectivity underpins a number of resource management strategies, such as establishment of fish sanctuaries to protect nurseries or spawning aggregations, or non-point source pollution programmes to protect coral reefs and other coastal resources.

On a slightly larger scale, the Caribbean Sea, displaying similar bio-physical characteristics throughout its range, is often referred to as a Large Marine Ecosystem (LME). One of the defining features of this LME is the pattern of the ocean currents, which facilitate the movement of animals, plants, nutrients, and contaminants through the Caribbean.

Caribbean Large Marine EcosystemOcean currents through the Caribbean











As stated before, both living and non-living components move between adjacent ecosystems. For the Caribbean LME, there is movement into the Caribbean from the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, and from the interior of the continental countries bordering the Caribbean Sea. Fisherfolk and other users of the marine environment in the Caribbean are familiar with the “green water” phenomenon, resulting from periodic algal blooms caused by nutrients contained in the outflow from the Orinoco River (Venezuela) and the Essequibo River (Guyana).

At an even larger scale, the Caribbean ecosystem is part of the hemispheric and global systems, functioning as a critical link in the oceanic and aerial migratory pathways for animals, and being impacted by global phenomena such as African dust and global warming.

Caribbean Bird Migration

The establishment and management of protected areas is one way to ensure protection of critical ecosystems. Contrary to the belief that protected areas lock away resources, the Protected Planet Report 2014 shows that protected areas coverage is low compared to other land uses, with global coverage being 15.4% of the terrestrial space and 3.4% of oceans (Juffe-Bignoli et al, 2014). Even this level of coverage does not present an accurate picture of total protection, as (i) many sites are not actually managed, (ii) some types of sites, such as national parks, are used for various purposes, and (iii) some sites offer protection to human artifacts, as with cultural heritage sites. Some types of protected areas, such as biosphere reserves, are established in order to achieve more harmony in the interaction between humans and the natural environment. Another important issue is that protected areas actually provide critical goods and services, such as water and flood protection.

In the Wider Caribbean Region and adjacent regions, the inter-connected ecosystems of the Caribbean Large Marine Ecosystem are used for social and economic development by 116 million people (CARSEA, 2007), and through harvesting by other countries, support a global food chain. At the local level, the interactions between humans and the environment determines to a significant extent the state of the ecosystems. Unfortunately, the current trend is for human activities to degrade and fragment habitats, to disrupt ecosystem functioning, and hence undermine economic and social development.

Connectivity Conservation is an approach to conservation planning that is based on maintaining the ecosystem functions of fragmented natural areas. Simply put, connectivity conservation has the following purposes:
• It maintains or establishes natural areas that function as corridors between fragmented ecosystems.
• It maintains ecosystem functions in threatened areas.
• It restores and re-connects habitats and ecosystems.

The practice of connectivity conservation involves modifying the human-ecological interactions in order to improve ecosystem functioning, and as such, connectivity conservation is also a social construct.

The Caribbean Large Marine Ecosystem (CLME) is shared by twenty two independent states and seventeen non-independent island territories, including nine continental countries. The CLME is “home to more than 116 million people” (CARSEA, 2007), and as such, connectivity in the Caribbean context cannot be fully understood or addressed without an appreciation of the social component of Caribbean inter-dependence.

In pursuit of their economic agendas, countries have consistently undertaken activities that degrade the environment that supports that economic development. Similarly, the social (cultural and spiritual) needs of communities are sometimes adversely impacted, creating tensions between various groups in a community, and even between countries. “Apart from the economic importance of the ecosystem, it shapes the lives of all the inhabitants of the Caribbean in ways which defy statistical analysis. The Sea and its coasts form the stage on which the cultural, spiritual, and recreational life of the region is played out” (CARSEA, 2007).

In balancing these various needs, communities developed various forms of environmental management systems. Many persons should be familiar with actions by national governments to protected critical resources and influence how groups and individuals share in the use of natural resources. These actions include closed season for hunting various animals, watershed management, wildlife reserves, fisheries priority areas and fisheries reserves, and making various laws and rules. Some initiatives are based on concepts that shape actions at landscape (large) scales. Familiar concepts include watershed management, ridge to reef, and white water to blue water. These landscape concepts are based on the knowledge that ecosystems are connected even across large areas.

In much the same way that national governments act to influence the interaction between man and the environment, governments also cooperate in protecting and sharing in the use of environmental resources at the regional level. Mechanisms that support regional action include the establishment of regional institutions such as the Caribbean Regional Fisheries Mechanism, establishment of regional conventions such as the Convention for the Protection and Development of the Marine Environment of the Wider Caribbean Region (the Cartagena Convention), and periodic regional projects.

However, ecological connectivity and social connectivity are typically addressed as separate issues in public policies, even though it should be obvious that some forms of social interaction are based on relationships established through interactions with natural systems.

Adapting a Wikipedia definition, an ecosystem can be described simply as a community of living organisms (plants, animals, and microbes) interacting with each other and with the non-living components of their environment (things like air, water, and soil) to form a distinct system.

Similarly, a social system can be defined as a society that displays distinct characteristics resulting from enduring patterns of interaction between individuals, groups, and institutions. The distinct characteristics include beliefs that shape the behavior of the social actors.

A Social-Ecological System (also referred to as a socio-ecological system) is an ecological system linked with and affected by one or more social systems, and which in turn affect the interactions between humans. In other words, some of the social interactions take place through interaction with ecosystems. This is most obvious in the use of environmental resources that are considered to be common property resources, such as beaches, oceans, and rivers.

Understanding social-ecological systems require the incorporation of concepts from several disciplines in the natural and social sciences, contributing to the complexity of designing and implementing sustainable development strategies. However, the literature suggests that, as the concept of social-ecological systems incorporates theories dealing with issues such as equity, resilience, and sustainability, the use of social-ecological systems concept in conservation and development planning provides the adaptability necessary to address current and future development challenges.

Connectivity is increasingly being acknowledged as a key factor in the design of marine protected areas, ensuring that sites contain habitats necessary to support all the life cycle stages of important species, and that networks of protected areas are available to enable migration and recruitment (Grober-Dunsmore and Keller 2008, Pittman et al 2014, Green et al 2014). Not as well understood is how to incorporate refugia (places that offer protection of key species from extreme events and/or which function as sources for recruitment), adequate space for migration of habitats under climate change conditions, and how to maintain protected landscapes.

Even less understood is how to address the cultural aspects of social-ecological systems, such as (i) cultural practices, which support or create conflicts with conservation and protected areas management strategies; (ii) human migration patterns in the Caribbean, which influence understanding of social norms, and hence resource management strategies; (iii) human motivations (such as greed, fear, cynicism, livelihood needs) in facilitating or limiting public policy development; and (iv) community dynamics, and the associated potential for governance.

Research on ecological connectivity in the Caribbean is more advanced than research on governance arrangements in resource management. However, research on social-ecological systems in the Caribbean is at its very beginning. Considering the ongoing investment of financial and human resources in the design and operation of natural resource management strategies, there is need for greater integration of both strands of research, as well as incorporating research results into protected areas development and management.

Note from the Editor
Lloyd Gardner is an environmental planning consultant, a Director of Ecotech Inc. Limited, and currently serves on the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas as the Regional Vice Chair Caribbean. This article is the written version of a PowerPoint Presentation made during the Sixth World Parks Congress, Sydney, Australia, November 2014.

The Parks Caribbean Initiative welcomes information on connectivity conservation initiatives relevant to protected areas development in the Caribbean. Information should be sent to:

Literature Cited
Bertzky, Bastian; Corrigan, Colleen; Kemsey, James; Kenney, Siobhan; Ravilious, Corinna; Besançon, Charles; and Burgess, Neil. (2012). Protected Planet Report 2012: Tracking progress towards global targets for protected areas. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and UNEP-WCMC, Cambridge, UK.

CARSEA. (2007). Caribbean Sea Ecosystem Assessment: A sub-global component of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. Agard, John; Cropper, Angela; and Garcia, Keisha. (eds.), Caribbean Marine Studies, Special Edition, 2007.

Green, Alison; Maypa, Aileen; Almany, Glen; Rhodes, Kevin; Weeks, Rebecca; Abesamis, Rene; Gleason, Mary; Mumby, Peter; and White, Alan. (2014). Larval dispersal and movement patterns of coral reef fishes, and implications for marine reserve network design. Biological Reviews, pp. 000–000. 1 doi: 10.1111/brv.12155

Grober-Dunsmore, R., and B.D. Keller, eds. (2008). Caribbean connectivity: Implications for marine protected area management. Proceedings of a Special Symposium, 9-11 November 2006, 59th Annual Meeting of the Gulf and Caribbean Fisheries Institute, Belize City, Belize. Marine Sanctuaries Conservation Series ONMS-08-07. U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, Silver Spring, MD. 195 pp.

Juffe-Bignoli, D., Burgess, N.D., Bingham, H., Belle, E.M.S., de Lima, M.G., Deguignet, M., Bertzky, B., Milam, A.N., Martinez-Lopez, J., Lewis, E., Eassom, A., Wicander, S., Geldmann, J., van Soesbergen, A., Arnell, A.P., O’Connor, B., Park, S., Shi, Y.N., Danks, F.S., MacSharry, B., Kingston, N. (2014). Protected Planet Report 2014. UNEP-WCMC: Cambridge, UK.

Kennedy, Amy. (2014). Satellite telemetry and humpback whales: A tool for determining the habitat use, distribution and behavior of an endangered large whale species. Agricultural sciences. Universit_e Paris Sud – Paris XI, 2013.

Pittman SJ, Monaco ME, Friedlander AM, Legare B, Nemeth RS, et al. (2014). Fish with Chips: Tracking Reef Fish Movements to Evaluate Size and Connectivity of Caribbean Marine Protected Areas. PLoS ONE 9(5): e96028. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0096028.

Sources of Images
Caribbean Bird Migration Poster – BirdsCaribbean

Caribbean Large Marine Ecosystem:

Current Patterns in the Caribbean:

Mangrove Lagoon, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands – The image was generated using Google Maps

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