Emergent patterns in nature and society

Misperception of Feedbacks: Another Source of Vulnerability in Social-Ecological Systems

For those who couldn’t join us in Arizona, I’ll post the slides and the abstract of the talks I gave in Resilience 2011. This post in particular is dedicated to my previous work assessing resilience of a lobster fishery system. I did field work back in 2004 and 2005 and published as my BSc thesis in Ecology in 2006. Part of the idea of presenting this in the Resilience Conference was to figure out if it worth the effort to transform it into a paper intended for a broader scientific audience. In other words, if this case study has some lessons to share with people working in other social-ecological systems. Surprisingly it did attracted some attention. Similar work has been presented by Xavier Basurto on his work on Mexican fisheries, while a more theoretical approach has been used by Jon Norberg and Marty Anderies modeling social capital dynamics in a fisheries context.

Previous drafts of my ideas are available on the web. Here you can find an English version of my work with lobsters, but due to my English knowledge at the time, the paper is poorly written. If you are really interested, drop me a mail and I’ll send you the document in Spanish.

Misperception of Feedbacks: Another Source of Vulnerability in Social-Ecological Systems

Our ability to anticipate system dynamics is very restricted by our mental models, even with complete information of the causal structure of the system. Humans are prone to misperception of feedbacks. In a nutshell, misperception of feedback refers to the tendency that decision makers often are insensitive to nonlinearities that alter the strength of feedback loops, undervalue the importance of delays, and misperceive the workings of stock and flow relationships. But what does it mean for natural resource management? I explored the role of misperception of feedbacks using as a study case the lobster fishery social-ecological system in the Colombian Caribbean.

Semi-structural interviews and a dynamic model were used to study three subsystems. First, lobster population were simulated by cohorts, taking into consideration density-dependence and meta-population dynamics. Fishery sub model was validated with official records and interviews with fishermen. On the top of the fishery data, the model  was enriched by data on fishermen behavior based on experimental economics. Treatments include institutions as communication, allowance and monitoring of external norms accomplishment. The third sub model emphasize on traditional ecological knowledge and the community’s value system.

The findings show dynamic failures directing the system to undesirable stable states where fishery is unsustainable: less and shorter lobsters, less profits and less fishermen; therefore erosion on the system’s knowledge. These failures typically fall within subsystems interactions: e.g. losses of lobster reproductive potential, perception of non-resource exhaustion, a poverty trap of fishing effort, and a socially based reinforcing feedback for legitimate norms breaking. In addition, external factors like drugs smuggling has play a role in reducing system resilience.

We conclude by identifying three tipping points important for managers, two in the social domain and another in the biological one. Fist, the perception of equality among fishermen (local versus external agents) is driving them towards social equilibria highly uncooperative. Second, as fishermen social prestige is low, the social memory loss remains high with strong implications for innovation and adaptation in an environment typically hit by external shocks like storms and hurricanes. Third, monitoring programs based on biomass are not sensitive enough to resilience losses, inducing on one hand misperceptions by delayed information, while on the other closing the window of opportunity for preventive action. Instead, size and gender monitoring is proposed as possibly proxy for reproductive potential, a variable that has shown to be a good resilience surrogate of the system.


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