University News

Biologists, economists unite over fisheries

Contributing Writer
Thursday, September 29, 2011

Since her first visit to Mexico’s Gulf of California in 1996, Heather Leslie, assistant professor of environmental studies, has seen the fish stock decline first-hand. The gulf, which supplies more than half of Mexico’s seafood and three-fourths of its shrimp, is changing rapidly.

Leslie and Sriniketh Nagavarapu, assistant professor of economics and environmental studies, received over $240,000 Sept. 15 to study the relationship between the Mexican people and their environment. They will work with researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California at San Diego and the Nature Conservancy.

Leslie has been involved in projects along the Gulf of California, which she called the “seafood basket” of Mexico, for seven years. The grant will allow her and other researchers to conduct nearly 18 months of interdisciplinary studies about coupled human and natural systems.

Natural resources are especially important in developing areas, Nagavarapu said. “Small communities are dependent on these natural resources for income.”

The project will encompass several areas of research. One study involves how environmental factors affect resource management by private corporations.

Several surveys will also extend the scope of the research — in particular, plans to survey corporate leaders in the gulf will shed light on the relationship between private and government monitoring of fishing stocks.

The project is a truly interdisciplinary one. Leslie specializes in translating knowledge from environmental studies into policy and management. Nagavarapu’s background is environmental and developmental economics. These areas “all inform how we’re thinking about people,” Leslie said.

This interdisciplinary approach is something that is only possible in Brown’s unique atmosphere, Leslie said.

The research has not yet affected any policy in the area, but Leslie said they are not pressing for policy changes. They aim instead to provide the information necessary for the Mexican people, corporations and government to work together to find a solution.

Problems in the area are receiving increasing attention. The Marine Stewardship Council, a major sustainable seafood agency, recently gave its approval to the Pacific sardine fishery, the largest fishery in the area. The agency brought together the conservation group Comunidad y Biodiversidad and fishery stakeholders to forge a policy that satisfied everyone’s needs, according to a press release by the council July 21.

Leslie and Nagavarapu were among the 20 recipients of the National Science Foundation’s Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems grants. The research team, which includes postdoctoral research associates Leila Sievanen and Sheila Walsh, will head for the west coast in January.

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