Ecological Restoration: History, services and rebuilding

A number of government agencies and conservation institutions around the world are underscoring the importance of restoration as a tool to protect habitats and ecosystems, and perhaps bring them to an acceptable functioning condition that resembles a previous historical condition.  Restoration requires science, experimentation, political will, funding and societal participation in the design and implementation of restoration programs and projects.  In the United States, agencies (e.g., NOAA) support local stewardship efforts in restoring habitats.  In July 2009, Science published a special issue (vol. 325, no. 5940) on restoration ecology that deserves our attention.  As quoted from the authors, “restoration ecology is a relatively new science…. But in its short life it assumed a major role in sustainable development efforts across the globe.” In relation to our endeavors in identifying the best science for the conservation of marine and coastal resources in the Caribbean, we recommend two articles for further reading from this special issue: Ecological Restoration in the Light of Ecological History by S.T. Jackson and R.J. Hobbs; Restoration of Ecosystems Services for Environmental Markets by M.A. Palmer and S. Filoso.  On a similar note, we also suggest reading Rebuilding Global Fisheries (Science, vol. 325, p. 578), which was written by a number of scientists led by Boris Worm and Ray Hilborn.

Jackson and Hobbs argue on the importance of the historical perspective on ecosystems and the need for paleoecological and paleoenvironmental studies in understanding “existing and historical ecosystems, determining the circumstances under which they arose, gauging the range of environmental variability they have experienced, and identifying different levels of intervention” (2009:568). These authors are cautious, but firm in their view of the need for a historical analysis of ecosystems, prior to a deliberation on how to restore them.  Their model and recommendations are straightforward; however, they fail to mention the human component. In many cases, historical ecosystems and paleoenvironments show evidence of the human footprint in varying degrees.  Namely, restoration must also consider archaeological and paleoecological factors (which are often worked in tandem) in order to create a more precise view of past ecosystems.

Palmer and Filoso provide a short and precise discussion on ecosystem services and environmental markets, and their role in restoration.  The authors warn the reader on the many interpretations of restoration that are not ecologically sound.  If restoration is defined, in its purest form, as “returning an ecosystem to an undisturbed or historic state”, then one must be cautious with projects that propose the “creation” of a stream or a wetland in an area where there was none in the past. Furthermore, many projects are based on the structural characteristics of the ecosystem (e.g., developing a salt flat or a wooded area), but ecological processes are disregarded.  In addition, the difference between a service and a process are underscored: the former should be based on the scientific analysis of how is the ecosystem performing, while the latter delivers a service, such as “clean water to humans” (2009:575).

Rebuilding Global Fisheries (Worm et al. 2009) provides a worldwide panorama of the status of the stocks and starts, based on many scientific papers and data, with overfishing as the main culprit for its decline.  The article also reviews the status of fisheries science and the assessment of stocks on a global scale. Information on single species predominates, mostly in temperate regions and continental areas, where industrial fishing fleets operate with the most advanced technologies.  The authors acknowledge that, the “information … for small-scale artisanal and recreational fisheries is scarcer, less accessible, and more difficult to interpret. This is because small-scale fisheries are harder to track… ” (2009:581). The lack of enforcement and poor reporting make management difficult for small-scale fisheries, and thus, rebuilding (restoration) continues to be a major challenge. While this study offers important recommendations for the science of restoration and the rebuilding of stocks (“still a poorly understood process”), a poor understanding and treatment of the human factor remains, except for a handful of broad remarks on the socioeconomic factors shaping small-scale and industrial fisheries. Nevertheless, the overall analysis is top-notch and those interested in ecosystem restoration and stock rebuilding should further explore by reading this article.

Contribued by M. Valdés Pizzini

Sea Grant and CIEL

NOAA Restoration Center

Society for Ecological Restoration International

Global Restoration Network

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