2
The Importance of a Conceptual Foundation

The stated mission of the Gulf Ecosystem Monitoring (GEM) program is broad and ambitious: “to sustain a healthy and biologically diverse marine ecosystem in the northern Gulf of Alaska and the human use of the marine resources in that ecosystem through greater understanding of how its productivity is influenced by natural changes and human activities” (EVOSTC, 2000a). According to this mission, GEM has a dual purpose—to sustain a healthy ecosystem and to ensure sustainable human uses of the marine resources. The second part of the mission statement assumes that these objectives will be accomplished by understanding how both natural changes and human activities influence ecosystem productivity. Implicit in this rationale is that it is possible to separate the causes of natural changes from human-induced changes. It also assumes that a successful monitoring program has to take into account both climate change and changing patterns of human exploitation (e.g., fishing practices), which could call for attention to a very complex array of variables.

The GEM program is a long-term monitoring program, and long time series are essential to detecting ecosystem change on intermediate and long time scales. The first step in any research program, particularly one such as GEM, is development of a conceptual foundation, which must be broad because of the program’s long time scale. No one can know what theories, taxa, or processes will emerge as critical to the public or managers or relevant to ecosystem functioning in future decades. The choice of a conceptual foundation is critical, as this will drive the choice of species and parameters to monitor. Conceptual foundations that rest on a few indicator species, specific hypotheses about marine ecosystems (e.g., Pa-



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A Century of Ecosystem Science: Planning Long-Term Research in the Gulf of Alaska 2 The Importance of a Conceptual Foundation The stated mission of the Gulf Ecosystem Monitoring (GEM) program is broad and ambitious: “to sustain a healthy and biologically diverse marine ecosystem in the northern Gulf of Alaska and the human use of the marine resources in that ecosystem through greater understanding of how its productivity is influenced by natural changes and human activities” (EVOSTC, 2000a). According to this mission, GEM has a dual purpose—to sustain a healthy ecosystem and to ensure sustainable human uses of the marine resources. The second part of the mission statement assumes that these objectives will be accomplished by understanding how both natural changes and human activities influence ecosystem productivity. Implicit in this rationale is that it is possible to separate the causes of natural changes from human-induced changes. It also assumes that a successful monitoring program has to take into account both climate change and changing patterns of human exploitation (e.g., fishing practices), which could call for attention to a very complex array of variables. The GEM program is a long-term monitoring program, and long time series are essential to detecting ecosystem change on intermediate and long time scales. The first step in any research program, particularly one such as GEM, is development of a conceptual foundation, which must be broad because of the program’s long time scale. No one can know what theories, taxa, or processes will emerge as critical to the public or managers or relevant to ecosystem functioning in future decades. The choice of a conceptual foundation is critical, as this will drive the choice of species and parameters to monitor. Conceptual foundations that rest on a few indicator species, specific hypotheses about marine ecosystems (e.g., Pa-

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A Century of Ecosystem Science: Planning Long-Term Research in the Gulf of Alaska cific Decadal Oscillation), or current human impacts (e.g., fishing) are likely to be too narrow and inflexible to support the GEM mission. Instead, the GEM conceptual foundation needs to incorporate the sense that marine ecosystems (processes and taxa) change in response to physical and biological changes and human impacts, as is clearly expressed in the mission statement. Even if the same endpoints for monitoring could be reached by choosing variables to measure in the absence of a broad conceptual foundation (NRC, 1995), it would be difficult to justify them without a conceptual foundation that provides the broad context and helps illustrate relationships. A solid conceptual foundation will buffer GEM against inevitable shifts in public concerns, such as current concerns with Steller sea lions. Indeed, GEM is aware of the difficulty of pursuing long-term monitoring in the face of short-term interests. There are provisions for multi-decade measurements and for shorter research programs targeting specific issues or hypotheses, so that GEM can respond to current concerns without sacrificing long-term data sets that will prove increasingly useful as they accumulate. A well-designed and broad-based program will provide the best scientific basis for understanding many ecological issues of public concern. Rendering the conceptual foundation into specific research activities implies the generation of questions. These questions can come from members of the scientific community as well as members of the native communities, fishing communities, state and federal resource managers, and any other stakeholders. The benefits of meaningfully incorporating local communities are twofold: Local knowledge and participation can enrich the scientific program and reciprocally provide a broader basis of support and understanding for the program mission. Indeed, while it is appropriate and probably necessary that a scientific conceptual foundation be developed primarily by scientists, the ability of local communities to inform and provide knowledge of the ecosystem must be emphasized. Finally, the conceptual foundation must be compatible with the mission of GEM. This mission, as stated in the program, is broad and somewhat indefinite. Despite its breadth, the mission does focus some attention on the reciprocal interactions between humans and the marine environment, although the emphasis is heavily on natural variability, with less attention to measuring human-induced change. Humans derive goods, services, and pleasure from the ocean and consequently, marine systems are affected by these human activities. This occurs in a context of regional climatic and oceanic change—changes that will inevitably and unpredictably occur during the time scale of GEM. Almost all resource management issues require society to determine the cause of observed system changes. Thus, the conceptual foundation

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A Century of Ecosystem Science: Planning Long-Term Research in the Gulf of Alaska provides a framework for thinking about the kinds of measurements and studies that will be needed if we hope to understand the influences of environmental variation and human activities on the delivery of goods and services from the marine ecosystems. To do this effectively the architects of the GEM program have appropriately taken the long-term view. The GEM conceptual foundation in the second volume of the August 31, 2000 draft science plan is adequate: It is broad enough to serve over time, is interdisciplinary, and encompasses ecosystem interconnections. It deals with both oceanic and terrestrial ecosystems and the ways that climate and humans influence the production of energy and its flow through these interconnected systems. With a modest restatement, so that it is phrased as an hypothesis, the conceptual foundation could provide a useful guide for research: The Gulf of Alaska, its surrounding watersheds, and human populations are an interconnected set of ecosystems that must be studied and monitored as an integrated whole. Within this interconnected set, at time-scales of years to decades, climate and human impacts are the two most important driving forces in determining the amount of primary production and its transfer to upper trophic-level organisms of concern to humans. Given its importance as the guiding force, the GEM conceptual foundation needs to be up front in the GEM science plan instead of in Volume II, Chapter 4. The committee interprets the placement of the conceptual foundation at the end of Volume II as an indication that it is of lesser importance than other elements of the draft science plan. Without a clear and prominent conceptual foundation, it will be exceedingly difficult for the GEM program to remain on course over the coming years as various short-term needs will divert resources and hinder long-term achievements. The committee is therefore concerned that in the draft science plan it appears that the role of the conceptual foundation in shaping the GEM program has been largely replaced by studies designed to meet short-term needs. There seems to be a critical change in the thinking about the GEM program—from a long-term scientific program driven by a cascade of hypotheses that would determine what, where, and when measurements should be taken—to a program driven by the need to conduct studies in a range of habitats and locations of dubious scientific connection. If this change in emphasis is implemented, GEM is unlikely to fulfill its potential and make unique contributions to improving our understanding of the structure and functioning of a marine ecosystem. We are also concerned that the GEM document gives more emphasis to natural variability as compared to human-induced changes on the Gulf of Alaska ecosystem when both are key parts in the conceptual foundation.

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A Century of Ecosystem Science: Planning Long-Term Research in the Gulf of Alaska THE SCIENCE PLAN AS A BRIDGE BETWEEN THE CONCEPTUAL FOUNDATION AND A WORKING SCIENCE PROGRAM A science plan provides the broad outline for translating a conceptual foundation into a working science program by expanding the conceptual foundation into a series of testable hypotheses, questions, or objectives. In the case of the GEM, these hypotheses might concern how energy flows through the various parts of the Gulf of Alaska and Prince William Sound marine ecosystems, and how climate variability at annual to decadal scales might interact with human activities to shape the goods and services obtainable from these ecosystems. Thus, the science plan provides a guideline for the implementation of the GEM program and is the initial guide to scientists, managers, and other stakeholders as they refine the program. While one might not foresee changes in the conceptual foundation of the program, the science plan would be open to modification as new information is gained. In developing the science plan it may be useful to contrast the ways that we might expect climate and human activities to influence these marine ecosystems. One might expect that climate—through its influences on physical processes as well as through the rates of biological processes through the effects of temperature—will have its primary effects through bottom-up processes that determine the timing, amount, and fate of primary production, including its transfer from one habitat to another. These bottom-up processes are expected to dominate basin and shelf processes, including those in the Alaska Coastal Current. In contrast, one might expect that human activities, through harvest of marine resources including fish, shellfish, and marine mammals, and through the addition of hatchery-raised fishes, will have their primary effects through top-down processes. In the case of the removal of commercially harvested species, the result may be a redirection of energy flow from commercially valuable species (e.g., pollock) to less desired species (e.g., arrowtooth flounder). These impacts are likely to be strongest in inshore and shelf habitats, including Prince William Sound. The other major human impact on this system, pollution, is likely to have its effects restricted to the nearshore, intertidal, and watershed habitats and may exert both top-down and bottom-up impacts. Climate and humans can under some circumstances affect either bottom-up or top-down processes and climate and human impacts may vary in type between habitats. The role of bottom-up and top-down processes in regulating basin, shelf, and watershed ecosystems should be considered when building and implementing a sound GEM science plan. Questions stemming from the above general hypotheses that might be useful for guiding the development of the core set of measurements

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A Century of Ecosystem Science: Planning Long-Term Research in the Gulf of Alaska could include, for example: How does high (i.e., interannual) and low frequency (i.e., decadal or longer) variation in climate affect the timing, duration, and amount of primary production? How does the timing or duration of primary production influence the fate of organisms dependent on it? What are the fluxes of nutrients and materials between the habitats of interest, and how do these fluxes affect the eventual fate of production in sustaining species of interest to humans? What are the ecosystem-wide effects of the removal or addition of large biomasses of predatory fishes by humans? How does the introduction of pollution affect the ecosystem and how important is the timing, duration, and magnitude of pollutant release? How do fluxes of freshwater, nutrients, and organisms between watersheds and ocean environments affect the dynamics of the ecosystems of the region? Although there are a number of subsidiary hypotheses presented in Chapter 4 of the GEM document (EVOSTC, 2001), there is little effort to tie them into the program’s conceptual foundation or to explore how they might provide the connections needed between the conceptual foundation and the development of the science program. Thus, the GEM team has not used the conceptual foundation to develop its research plan. The conceptual foundation provides a clear, concise framework of the functioning of the Gulf of Alaska and Prince William Sound marine ecosystems. If the GEM plan is to be coherent and successful over the long term, the conceptual framework must be at the center of the program, with all research and monitoring emerging from and addressing it. The development of the science plan from the conceptual framework will benefit from a review of existing data. Such a review should take advantage of the many years of research funded by the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, as well as the results of the many independently funded research activities that have occurred in the northern Gulf of Alaska and adjacent waters. These syntheses should include investigation of what has been learned about ecosystem function in the Bering Sea, other areas of the North Pacific, and in the sub-Arctic seas of the North Atlantic Ocean and the Barents Sea. The hypotheses used to focus GEM’s long-term research will set the course of the program for many years to come. Deciding on the best approach is not something that should be done quickly or without benefit of other programs. A carefully crafted conceptual framework and attendant hypotheses will determine the success or failure of the program. A broad conceptual foundation with a sound scientific basis provides a strong scientific justification for the program. It provides an intellectual structure that can guide modification of the program if that becomes necessary. One might ask if this approach is too academic for a program that includes applied management goals and whether it would preclude the

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A Century of Ecosystem Science: Planning Long-Term Research in the Gulf of Alaska study of issues identified by managers or the public. The opposite is true. If the GEM program has a broad scientific foundation, then short-term issues of public concern can be addressed as elements in this broad construct. Even more important, a sound scientific framework would make it much more likely that the GEM program will collect the most useful and important ecological information. However urgent an environmental issue might be, understanding and managing it almost always depends on scientific understanding. Thus, a soundly designed program based on a scientific conceptual foundation should not be seen as an alternative to local community and public concerns. Instead, it should be recognized as the only way to do that effectively over the long term. The committee offers the following recommendations to achieve this broad goal: The science plan should include a broad conceptual foundation that is ecosystem-based. It should seek to understand natural and human-induced changes and it should be flexible to accommodate changing needs without compromising core long-term measurements. The GEM science plan should articulate two or three fundamental hypotheses about the ecosystem that then should be used to guide the selection for monitoring of particular species and other physical, biological, and human aspects of the ecosystem.