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Using Systems Thinking to Design a Simple Socio-ecological System

by Gemma Smith, International Coastal & Estuarine Specialists, Ltd.

In a marine context, the Social-Ecological System (SES) includes all the living things in the sea (such as fish, plants, and microscopic life), the physical environment of the ocean (such as the water, the seafloor, and the coastlines), and all the ways that humans use, benefit from, and affect the ocean. This includes activities such as fishing, shipping, tourism, and energy production, as well as less visible impacts such as climate change and pollution.

Within the Marine SABRES project, we are creating a Simple SES. This takes a big-picture approach to marine management by looking at the multiple elements of a marine system and how these elements interact with each other and external influences. The discipline of systems thinking provides us with the tools to look at how and what we manage in a critical way. Under a systems approach, we recognise that changes in one part of this system can have ripple effects throughout the rest of the system. For example, overfishing can deplete fish stocks, which in turn affects seabirds that feed on those fish, and also impacts human communities that depend on fishing for their livelihoods. The aim of this approach is to ensure that the SES is able to provide services to society, such as nice sandy beaches to visit and healthy ecosystems which supply the fish we eat.

In the approach of the Simple SES, we are using the Integrated Systems Analysis approach (ISA), which was chosen through a thorough literature review and strengths and weaknesses analysis of existing frameworks to assess which one would meet the Marine SABRES goals the best.

We use an underpinning framework to structure the connecting elements of what society needs from the ocean (the Drivers), which warrants various Activities such as fishing and energy production. These Activities can cause Pressures on the marine ecosystem; for example, if lots of litter is left at the beach by tourists, this may cause Pressures of increased harm to the wildlife. The Pressures can have an effect called a State change, this would be if the wildlife ate the litter and their numbers were reduced, and this Impacted people’s enjoyment in the area as there was no wildlife to appreciate. So we would need Response Measures to fix the issues that were caused by the Activities and Pressures so then societal welfare would not be impacted. This structuring method helps understand how the whole system is related to a goal or issue. Therefore this approach aims to help manage the ocean in a way that supports a healthy environment, a thriving blue economy, and the well-being of human communities. This means balancing different uses and impacts and making trade-offs where necessary. It also means monitoring the health of the system over time and adapting our management strategies as conditions change.

In managing these systems, it's crucial to involve all stakeholders, such as local communities, industry, and conservation organisations, among others and to base decisions on the best available science. This includes traditional ecological knowledge as well as data-driven scientific research. The ISA approach encompasses considerations for the social and ecological elements of the system as well as policy considerations, the inclusion of stakeholders and things that ensure reliable science, such as data management and validation.

At present, the Simple SES is being reviewed by the project partners and work on testing the approach will begin in September 2023!



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