The Historical Ecology and Social-Ecological Systems of Kona Coast Coral Reefs: towards 'Peopled' Approaches to Marine Science and Management

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No corner of the world's oceans is untouched by humans. Yet in marine science, management, and conservation, oceans are consistently treated as 'unpeopled', that is, human systems are divorced systematically from ecological systems, and assumptions of human/environmental relationships are oversimplified. This dissertation aims to contribute to interdisciplinary, or 'peopled', approaches to marine sciences and management by integrating biophysical and social sciences, specifically historical ecology and resilience thinking on social-ecological systems. Herein, I examine this theoretically (Chapter 2) and empirically by investigating the coral reefs of Hawaii Island's Kona Coast historically, through the oral histories of 'ocean experts', diverse locally-living people from diverse knowledge systems. I investigate human, biophysical, and social-ecological aspects of 'ecological change.'

Chapter 3 demonstrates that currently there are six expert ocean knowledge systems surrounding Kona's reefs: Native Hawaiians, dive shop operators, tropical aquarium collectors, shoreline fishers, scientists, and conservationists. These are distinct in what experts know about Kona's reefs, and how they know it. The giving and taking of authority between ocean experts, and among people and marine management, influences the condition of the biophysical, social, and management dimensions of Kona's reef systems.

Chapter 4 examines the biophysical dimensions of change, specifically the historic abundance and distribution of 271 coral reef species. Ocean expert's observations of ecological change are surprisingly consistent, regardless of perspective. Historically, species tend to follow one of eight trends in abundance and distribution, grouping into what I term 'social-ecological guilds'. Analyzing these data with Western scientific frameworks (e.g., trends in apex predators, herbivores, corallivores) proved inappropriate, compared to qualitative approaches. Engaging a multiplicity of perspectives reveals historical ecology broader and richer than from any one knowledge system alone.

Chapter 5 identifies coupled aspects of marine social-ecological systems, or what I call 'keystone social-ecological features'. I examine 8 features in detail and show how they are central to understanding 'sea change' through such diverse perspectives. Comparing expert's perceptions and responses to ecological through keystone features, I show that 'change' differs based on sociopolitical, economic, etc. perspective. Understanding relationships between and among people, the ecosystem, and marine management institutions is critical for improved ocean management.






Shackeroff, Janna M. (2008). The Historical Ecology and Social-Ecological Systems of Kona Coast Coral Reefs: towards 'Peopled' Approaches to Marine Science and Management. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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