A framework based on perspectives from both the natural and social sciences can be used to develop policy-relevant scenarios that can facilitate a more sustainable and holistic governance of marine social-ecological systems. Photo: G. Almqvist/Azote

Scenario planning

Model behaviour

New model to develop scenarios of complex marine social-ecological interactions

Story highlights

  • New scenario development approach focuses on integrated social-ecological perspective, instead of traditional ecological with human impact approach
  • Model developed includes variables, linkages, and feedbacks relevant for a marine social-ecological systems
  • Interdisciplinary models are thought to contribute to better fisheries governance practices

When it comes to finding governance strategies best opted for turbulent times, adaptive governance is often hailed as one of the best alternatives. A cornerstone of this approach is the involvement of diverse knowledge systems and the engagement in collaborative learning as a basis for inclusive decision making processes. Adaptive governance has been described an important tool for dealing with complexity and for resolving conflicts among diverse stakeholder.

To do so, scenarios are frequently used.

Unfortunately, most scenarios rarely have an integrated social-ecological focus, but rather focus on ecological dynamics, with human activities perceived as external drivers of change. The natural sciences have a long history of developing scenarios, while scholars within the social sciences often argue that human behaviour is too complex to be represented by broad generalisations useful for models and scenarios.

Robust and realistic
In a new article published in BioScience, several of the centre's experts on marine issues have together with an international team of researchers tried to bridge the gap between social and ecological systems understanding, as a starting point for developing integrated social-ecological scenarios.

The study, which is a first contribution from the Nippon Foundation funded Nereus programme, is based on decades of experiences with the development of marine ecosystem models, in combination with insights from a rapidly growing social sciences and interdisciplinary literature on marine resource management.

"The aim is to develop a framework that enables multidisciplinary scenario studies. We are convinced that such integrated scenarios are both realistic and relevant for governance of social-ecological systems"

Henrik Österblom, lead author

Henrik Österblom believes scenarios should be well grounded in both the natural and social sciences, because without the consideration of human interactions with the ecosystems in which they operate, scenarios are incomplete, he says.

Models on marine systems are becoming increasingly detailed and complex, and are able to incorporate potential management interventions such as changes in fishing pressure, nutrient runoff and habitat protection measures, but they are often unable to explain how scenarios could be realized or are ill suited for describing the human dimensions.

And herein lies the challenge.

Valid and meaningful
According to Österblom and his colleagues, a crucial first step in developing realistic social-ecological scenarios is to better incorporate solid empirical understandings of social-ecological interactions.

"The research underpinning our scenarios has to meet two methodological requirements: it must produce an empirically valid and meaningful understanding of the diversity and complexity inherent in social-ecological systems, and it must address an understanding of factors influencing change over time," Österblom explains.

The new model by Österblom and his colleagues include variables, linkages and feedbacks that are all relevant in order to model a marine social-ecological system. It includes a number of factors that influence human behavioural change, including society, knowledge systems, political and institutional setting, and the economy. It also involves different actors and institutions.

How can this model be used?

The work to develop more effective governance of illegal fisheries in the Southern Ocean can be used as an illustration: changing attitudes in Australia influenced national political priorities related to illegal fishing in the Southern Ocean. Australia, together with other nations involved in the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, changed the political direction of this commission, which led to the development of new rules and management tools. Scientists played a key role in these changes, because they were able to make credible projections of a likely collapse of valuable fish stocks and of endangered seabird populations. These actions combined reduced illegal fishing and therefore improved compliance. Licensed industry actors directly affected by illegal fishing were also actively engaged in lobbying for political change. Although new rules and management tools stimulated compliance by the actors, they were probably also influenced by market signals of the changing prices of illegally caught fish and the related economic returns.

"The ecological effects of a reduction of capture fisheries in this case be further modeled in the ecosystem components of our proposed new framework," Österblom explains.

Understanding the dynamics
With their study, Österblom and his colleagues are making a case for the development of scenarios that are more interdisciplinary in style and substance.

"Realistic scenarios require an interdisciplinary approach and innovative combinations of methods and data. If we better bridge knowledge and data from the social and natural sciences we can better understand the dynamics in a social-ecological system and ultimately develop policies that can facilitate a more sustainable governance of our oceans," Österblom concludes.

Published: 2013-10-24



Österblom, H., Merrie, A., Metian, M., Boonstra, W.J., Blenckner, T., Watson, J.R., Rykaczewski, R.R., Ota, Y., Sarmiento, J.L., Christensen, V., Schlüter, M., Birnbaum, S., Gustafsson, B., Humborg, C., Mörth, C-M., Müller-Karulis, B., Tomczak, M.T., Troell, M., and Folke, C. BioScience , Vol. 63, No. 9 (September 2013), pp. 735-744


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