Helping Managers Avoid Ocean Tipping Points

Written by on November 24, 2014 in Policy & Ocean Law

Three studies recently published in the November 24 special issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society Biological Science describe the actions resource managers need to take in order to avoid the tipping points that have potentially disastrous ecological, economic, and social consequences. These studies are the initial findings of the Ocean Tipping Points Project.

Photo credit: Ronald H. McPeak, UCSB Digital Commons.

Photo credit: Ronald H. McPeak, UCSB Digital Commons.

The Ocean Tipping Points Project, an international research collaboration, focuses on documenting ecological thresholds around the world, and works with local policymakers and stakeholders to develop management strategies to designed to mitigate them.

“In a sea of tipping points, identifying, anticipating, and reacting to sudden ecosystem changes will be critical as we seek to maintain the delivery of the goods and services from our oceans,” NOAA fisheries biologist and co-author Phil Levin said in a news release.

Embracing Thresholds for Better Environmental Management
The first study by scientists at the Center for Ocean Solutions at Stanford University and the Environmental Defense Fund found that successful management of systems with known tipping points depends most strongly on three factors:

  1. Consistent monitoring
  2. Explicit incorporation of tipping points data into management actions
  3. Management at small geographic scales

“Managers who use tipping points science are achieving positive results for virtually every kind of ecosystem,” said co-author Ashley Erickson, of the Center for Ocean Solutions. “The findings of our study can help resource managers focus and prioritize their efforts.”

Marine Ecosystem Regime Shifts: Challenges and Opportunities for Ecosystem-Based Management
The second study from NOAA and the University of Hamburg “provides additional guidance for marine managers on how to incorporate the risk of reaching a tipping point into current ecosystem-based management frameworks.” The study shows how to adapt NOAA’s Integrated Ecosystem Assessment (IEA) framework for marine environments. This approach helps decision-makers determine the possibility of an ecosystem crossing its threshold, and what the social, economic, and environmental impacts will be.

Human and Natural Drivers of Multiple Coral Reef Regimes Across the Hawaiian Archipelago
In the third study, researchers from the Center for Ocean Solutions, Stockholm Resilience Centre, University of Hawai`i, NOAA, and the Scripps Institute of Oceanography identified three distinct regions of the Hawaiian Archipelago reef system: hard corals, turf algae, or macroalgae. Over half the reefs in Hawaii are currently algae-dominated as a result of overfishing and nutrient pollution.

“To safeguard Hawaii’s coral reefs, we need to increase herbivore populations and decrease other human stressors, such as land run-off, that encourage the growth of algae,” said lead author Jean-Baptiste Jouffray of the Stockholm Resilience Centre. “By quantifying tipping points this study offers tangible targets for just how much those stressors need to be reduced to avoid regime shifts in healthy reefs and restore those already in decline. For managers working with limited funds and resources, this is critical information.”

To learn more, check out the Ocean Tipping Points website.

Copyright © 2014 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .


If you enjoyed this article, subscribe now to receive more just like it.

Subscribe via RSS Feed Find MST on Instagram Connect with MST on Google Plus

1 Reader Comment

Trackback URL Comments RSS Feed

  1. Charles H. says:

    Great photo of purple urchins devouring kelp holdfasts. Those kelp plants are dead and gone while the purple urchins eats only a small portion of the plant. The greater part of the structure is wasted.

    Part of the problem is a lack of predators on the purple urchins so they “stampede” and kelp beds are laid waste. Some of that is overfishing, if not most of the problem.

    There is another aspect though, and it’s related to overfishing on the red urchins. In the 1970s most kelp beds had plenty of red urchins and this species could outcompete the purple urchins – red urchins can live 200 yrs & they’re better at eating drift kelp. Kelp beds and algal-beds were common and lush. After this period the harvest of red urchins by divers in California released the purple urchins from competition and kelp beds have been getting decimated ever since. Only at Palos Verdes has this been the norm, Palos Verdes has had numerous other problems such as pollution and siltation.

    The Urchin Divers and other fishermen in California controlled the Dept of Fish & Game for most of the last thirty/forty years as well and in the beginning there wasn’t even a size limit on red urchins for fishermen. Often the people selected to be F&G Commissioners by most of California’s conservative Governors were sod farmers from Oxnard or real estate agents from Lake Tahoe. These people understand politics but not ecology and biology. The staff at F&G has been corrupted by this relationship as well.

    The fishing continues and the Divers have even obstructed scientific collecting in order to try and take over all of the resource but they haven’t been able to replicate the service that others provided.

    Kelp used to be the basis of the food chain off California but as long as purple urchins continue to decimate kelp beds most likely sewage will become dominant resource and more mammals like sea lions and seal will become injured by domoic acid poisoning. Red tides and acid seawater will become the norm.