Reconceptualizing Ecosystem Complexity



Study site and research objectives



Scope and Aims

The growing threats to coastal and marine ecosystems are among the most pressing environmental problems currently facing Canadians. With three oceans, Canada has a considerable dependence on ocean-related industries, such as fisheries, offshore oil and natural gas exploitation, the processing of domestic and imported minerals, and coastal tourism, as sources of revenue and jobs, although many of these industries have had negative environmental consequences. Under Canada’s Ocean Strategy (2002) and the subsequent Canada’s Oceans Action Plan (2005), an Integrated Management (IM) framework has been developed for implementation in the five priority Large Oceans Management Areas (LOMAs). The IM approach recognizes that coastal and marine ecosystems are characterized by tremendous complexity, and cannot be easily predicted. Such recognition has led to the development of a variety of new models and theoretical perspectives, seeking to produce a more holistic understanding of the interconnections between ecosystem components. For the most part, these initiatives tend to be directed toward obtaining detailed knowledge about the geo-morphological and bio-physical components of particular ecosystems. Consideration of human dimensions, when it occurs, focuses mainly on the local economic and/or ecological impacts of human activity. This narrow vision of human beings, however, fails to appreciate the full complexity of socio-ecological systems and this short-sightedness can lead to unsustainable and unjust ocean and coastal development practices.Recognizing that local socio-ecological systems are not isolated from the larger structures in which they are embedded, we propose to carry out detailed studies of ecosystem complexity which include an analysis of the global movements of capital that connect people, environments, and resources with distant places. The overall aim of this research project is to develop a more nuanced and effective approach to modelling ecosystems which will make it possible to address questions of sustainability on a truly global scale. We aim to develop an innovative framework that will allow for the creation of new representations of ecosystem complexity that are more sensitive to local ecological, social and cultural dynamics and that is capable of explicitly addressing the multifaceted ways in which local environments and communities are affected by social and economic forces originating beyond the local level.


Study site and research objectives

The research will be conducted in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, which is included in one of the LOMAs identified under Canada’s Oceans Action Plan (2005). It has also been chosen as the site for a multi-stakeholder IM process under the Oceans Act and for the “Smart Bay” project, which promises to apply a variety of cutting edge geospatial and communications technologies in ocean planning. Placentia Bay is used by a range of ocean and coastal industries, including fishing, aquaculture, oil refining, mineral smelting, and tourism. It also contains an extremely rich marine environment, including one of the healthiest remaining wild Atlantic cod populations in Newfoundland. The economic importance and ecological fragility of Placentia Bay, along with its many linkages to external forces, make it an ideal location in which to do this pilot study; highlighting the need to reconceptualise ecosystem complexity. The research will focus on four industries operating in the bay, all of which have global linkages: petroleum processing (both sweet crude from the Grand Banks and sour crude from international sources), fisheries (cod, crab and lobster as well as cultured species, such as mussels and salmon), mineral processing (nickel imported from Labrador), and tourism.The specific objectives of this research project are:

  • To systematically characterize the Placentia Bay ecosystem in terms of the natural, social, economic and governance aspects related to the four industries;
  • To review the history of Placentia Bay, with particular attention being given to the development of the four key industries to understand why, how and when certain activities and commodities became important;
  • To analyze the global value chain through an identification of the key producers/suppliers, distributors and markets that are linked to the four industries, and the understanding of their roles in and/or influences over the movements of these products;
  • To conduct detailed ethnographic studies of different areas of Placentia Bay in order to understand the issues and tensions that are emerging from the interactions between particular industries and communities, especially regarding the uses of coastal and marine spaces or resources; and
  • To develop a geo-referencing information system displaying the above information as an interactive, web-based source, with animated text, pictures, and audio formats.