Conservation-scapes & Bycatch


Conservation-scapes: An interdisciplinary approach to assessing cetacean bycatch in small-scale fisheries

My dissertation explored interdisciplinary methods for better understanding (and guiding) conservation of charismatic marine megafauna and their ecosystems, particularly in tropical developing nations.  I developed a social-ecological framework, “conservation-scapes”, to bring ecological and social science methods to bear on understanding the problem and context of bycatch (accidental capture) of cetaceans (whales, dolphins, porpoises) in small-scale fisheries.  My fieldwork for this project focused on the absurdly adorable, but irritating-to-study, Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris) at four sites in Southeast Asia.


In conservation research, the call for more holistic research that considers the human dimension of conservation problems has existed for decades.  However, such approaches have not yet been widely operationalized and integrated in conservation studies.   To promote improved operationalization of multidisciplinary, human-inclusive conservation research, I developed the conservation-scape framework.  This social-ecological framework outlines the sets of attributes that inform practical conservation approaches: (1) proximate attributes, which quantify and characterize the magnitude and risk of a given conservation problem, (2) underlying social context attributes, or the economic, social, and cultural factors that might influence human use of resources, and (3) underlying governance context attributes.

Mitigating bycatch of cetaceans in small-scale fisheries is an urgent conservation priority, inextricably linked to the pressing need for improved small-scale fisheries management.  Currently, our knowledge of the extent and underlying context of this issue is limited by substantial data gaps for both the ecological and social aspects.  To more holistically understand this conservation problem, I applied the conservation-scapes framework to investigate proximate and underlying attributes of Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris) bycatch at one focal site and three comparative sites in Southeast Asia.

For three of the four sites, bycatch was demonstrated to be unsustainable, based on annual bycatch mortality rates from interviews and dolphin population estimates.  Overlap between bycatch-related fishing gear use and dolphin habitat exists year-round at all sites.  To present information on proximate, social, and governance conservation-scape attributes in a concise and useful manner , I developed exploratory and comparative conservation-scape assessment scorecard that summarize the need and mitigation outlook for effectively reducing fishing gear-dolphin overlap at each site.  These indicate that the urgency of the bycatch problem is high, particularly for the three aforementioned sites, but that the mitigation outlook varies across sites, with cross-site differences in ties to fishing, general perceptions regarding environmental resources and dolphin conservation, general social attributes, and governance engagement and effectiveness.

Q: What is a conservation-scape?

A: A buzz-phrase that I just started using one day…it makes sense to me…

Conservation-scapes are the set of factors that compose a given conservation situation, encompassing: basic conservation biology (how human activity overlaps with and impacts organisms), drivers of human activity (social, cultural, and economic systems), governance structure and potential for conservation implementation, and assessment of conservation efforts.  These must be understood for effective environmental management.  My dissertation is structured around the concept of “mapping” these parameters for small cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises), and the human communities with which their habitat overlaps.  Such mapping should provide a multi-dimensional picture of research and conservation needs, and potential pathways for solutions.  These efforts will help us identify and address communication and implementation gaps between data collection, recommendations, and actions.

Fieldwork overview from 2012:

Right now, I am trotting around 4 field sites in Southeast Asia, doing fieldwork for my dissertation: “Mapping Conservation-scapes of Small Coastal Cetaceans & Artisanal Fisheries”.

Tricycling round the fishing barangays of Guimaras, Philippines

My fieldwork focuses on the impacts of artisanal (small-scale) fisheries on Irrawaddy dolphins (Orcaella brevirostris). The little-studied Irrawaddy dolphin occurs in small, fragmented populations throughout Southeast Asia.  Incidental capture, or “bycatch”, of these dolphins in artisanal fisheries poses a major threat to their continued existence.  Artisanal fisheries are small-scale fisheries for subsistence or local markets, usually employing small boats and traditional techniques.  Bycatch in such fisheries is recognized as a significant, global threat to marine mammal populations.  However, because artisanal fisheries provide a vital livelihood for coastal communities, it is neither sufficient nor ethical to focus only on “saving the dolphins.”  Irrawaddy dolphin conservation must address the needs of local human populations.

This is why I run off to Southeast Asia, leaving my San Diego friends and family forlorn, envious, and suspicious that perhaps I’m really doing “research” on which beaches offer optimal conditions for lounging, tropical drink consumption, and snorkeling.  What I actually spend most of my time doing is considerably less relaxing, but also considerably more fascinating (make no mistake, though – I do thoroughly enjoy the few days off that I allow myself!):

I am using ecology and social science field methods to understand the “conservation landscape” of Irrawaddy dolphins at four sites (2 in the Philippines, one in Indonesia, and one in Thailand).  I take photos of the dolphins so that I can identify individuals and understand where those individuals hang out and if those places overlap with fishing (or other) human activity.  I talk to fishers using various types of interviews to learn what they know about the dolphins (including the accidental capture of the dolphins), but also to gain greater understanding of the human element of this conservation problem.

Other parts of my dissertation will include an analysis of threats facing coastal and riverine cetaceans (dolphins, porpoises, whales) in tropical developing countries, and focusing on how the study of the human element of artisanal fisheries can inform conservation.