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‘Win-win solutions’ in the Pacific can balance environmental conservation with human development

Attendees of the second Stanford Oceans Conference highlighted the need to incorporate different knowledge systems and move beyond ‘either-or’ approaches to sustainability.

Kaiku Kaholoa'a (far left), a graduate student in biology at the School of Humanities and Sciences, facilitates a panel discussion about building connections and envisioning solutions across the Pacific. (Image credit: Josheena Naggea)

Representatives from across the Pacific region gathered on the Stanford campus earlier this month to champion the world’s largest and deepest ocean and the people who call its shores home.

Co-hosted by the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability and Graduate School of Business as part of the Sustainability Research Conference series, the event drew scientists, government officials, foundation officers, and other practitioners engaged in work across the region, from Mexico to China and the Marshall Islands to British Columbia.

The Pacific region encompasses half of Earth’s oceans by area and one-third of our planet. A quarter of the world’s languages originated in the region, which contains more than 25,000 islands. But vast social and economic disparities exist, exacerbated by climate change, biodiversity loss, geopolitical tensions, and the commodification of marine resources like fisheries.

“To strengthen resilience in the Pacific, we must work together to balance environmental conservation with economic prosperity, equity, and human health,” said Fiorenza Micheli, co-director of the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions and a professor of oceans in the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, as well as a co-organizer of the conference. 

In opening remarks, 'Aulani Wilhelm, MS ’14, chief strategy and external relations officer of the non-profit Nia Tero, noted that the concept of resilience is not new to many communities in the Pacific. “We just need to build upon what’s been there for millennia,” she said. 

Wilhelm shared a story from the Malaita People of the Solomon Islands, who succeeded in protecting sacred, high-elevation forests known as “Sky Aelans” or Sky Islands by securing national recognition of their customary rights. The community went on to ban mining and logging above 400 meters and employ local residents as full-time forest rangers, illustrating the need to expand Indigenous guardianship throughout the region’s ocean and coastal systems.

Rather than integrate traditional ecological knowledge into Western science, how can we integrate Western science into a place-based context?

Nicole Crane Executive director of One People, One Reef
Conference attendees discussed how marine protected areas can strengthen the resilience of canopy-building kelp to shocks like marine heat waves, which swept the U.S. West Coast from 2014 to 2016. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

Wilhelm urged conference attendees to entrust community partners to lead local efforts that strengthen resilience. “These places are not thriving because of the absence of people,” said Wilhelm, referencing the Malaita People and other communities that have stewarded natural resources for generations. “They’re thriving because of the presence of people.”  

Over 30 attendees of the two-day conference presented three-minute “lightning talks” about research projects focused on the Pacific. For example, Monterey Bay Aquarium Director of Science April Ridlon presented research on the decline of the iconic canopy-forming kelp along the U.S. West Coast and how to support its recovery. Karen Casciotti, professor of oceans at Stanford, described efforts to understand production mechanisms and rates for the potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide in the Eastern Pacific. Katie Pitz and Jacoby Baker of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute described advances in quantifying and tracking marine biodiversity through environmental DNA.

Different ways of knowing

Other speakers shared collaborations that seek to engage more people in thinking about the Pacific Ocean in new ways. A team from the new platform Ocean Vision AI is developing an immersive game for the general public to help analyze underwater imagery. Diana Looser, associate professor of theater and performance studies at Stanford, spoke about how performance and art at international climate talks have amplified perspectives of the Pacific diaspora and different notions of resilience.

“Some voices have a lot more power, and some stories are told more often,” said Ana Spalding, a marine social scientist based at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. She underscored the value of research partnerships that integrate ecological and social knowledge. 

This approach is especially important in the Pacific, which is home to millions of people who depend on oceans for their livelihoods and have accrued knowledge of marine ecosystems over generations.

“Rather than integrate traditional ecological knowledge into Western science, how can we integrate Western science into a place-based context?” asked Nicole Crane, executive director of One People, One Reef.

Marina Luccioni, a graduate student in biology at the School of Humanities and Sciences, also encouraged attendees to consider who controls new data or knowledge, particularly when it comes to Pacific Islanders’ biocultural resources, such as fish and fishing practices. “As researchers, it’s our job to advocate for their right to control their knowledge,” she said.

We need to reframe problems as having win-win solutions as opposed to either-or tradeoffs.

Giulio De Leo Professor of oceans, Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability

Moving beyond a false dichotomy

Conference discussions celebrated potential solutions that may support both environmental conservation and human development. “We need to reframe problems as having win-win solutions as opposed to either-or tradeoffs,” said oceans professor Giulio De Leo.

A panel of foundation officers facilitated by Jim Leape, co-director of the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions, discussed how philanthropy can support new partnerships, foster innovation, and build long-term relationships across the region. “Technologies can come in and help traditional practices deal with changing conditions,” said Erika Montague from Schmidt Marine Technology Partners.

Members of the Palumbi Lab, led by professor of oceans Steve Palumbi, shared progress on their search for heat-resistant corals. The team trains local researchers in Palau and other locations to test corals for heat resistance and inform the restoration of vulnerable reefs. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

Ambassador Ilana Seid, permanent representative of Palau to the United Nations and a Stanford alumna, highlighted the role of global initiatives like the High-Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, a convening of 18 world leaders, to develop solutions that balance equitable prosperity with ocean conservation.

Grassroots efforts also show promise. Safari Fang, a PhD student in oceans and the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources (E-IPER), shared how artisanal fishers in North China are working to protect endangered seahorses.

Fishers often net seahorses unintentionally when targeting other species, and rather than release their accidental catch, some sell it to the traditional medicine trade. Fang studies the collective action of fishers who have pursued alternative livelihoods and organized workshops to educate the community about the value of seahorses to the local marine ecosystem.

“Authoritarian governments control almost every aspect of society,” said Fang. “Communities are fighting for the freedom to care for the natural resources that their livelihoods depend on.”

View the full list of conference speakers. Conference organizers include Fiorenza Micheli, Sara Bender, Collin Closek, Margaret Cohen, Kaikuliumaikalani Hunter Kaholoaa, Jeff Koseff, Jim Leape, and Kate Lowry.

Fiorenza Micheli is the David and Lucile Packard Professor in Marine Science. She is also a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and a professor, by courtesy, of biology in the School of Humanities and Sciences. She chairs the Department of Oceans in the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability.

Jim Leape is also the William and Eva Price Senior Fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment.

Giulio De Leo is also a senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment, a professor of Earth system science, and a professor, by courtesy, of biology in the School of Humanities and Sciences.

Karen Casciotti is also a senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment, and Associate Dean of Facilities and Shared Labs at the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability.

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Katie Jewett

Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability

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