Tundi's Take: Social Media Connects Humans with Ecosystems, Too

The Skimmer on Marine Ecosystems and Management

By Tundi Agardy, MEAM Contributing Editor (tundiagardy [at] earthlink.net)

My children will say that I am the last person on Earth who should be opining on the value of social media. I admit that I am stuck in the past and unwilling to engage in social networking by joining Facebook or Twitter. But even the reluctant can't help but be caught up in the social media wave, recognizing its inexorable value - and not just in connecting people. To me, social media can do something unexpected: it can better connect us with nature and the ecosystems on which we depend.

For EBM, these connections are essential. Forming connections to our ecosystems can be done cerebrally, with information technologies that support scientific understanding, which in turn allow us to understand our place in the world and how we interact with it (both positively and negatively). But these connections can also be made more viscerally, giving us a reason to use that scientific information to better manage our impacts on the natural world.

Take the case of a blog or Twitter feed that tracks the path of a satellite-tagged leatherback turtle through the Pacific Ocean. The female turtle comes ashore in Mexico to lay its eggs then heads way offshore, eventually finding its way to the cold and nutrient rich waters of Chile to feed. People following that turtle might learn of all the ways humans threaten it along its journey: from poaching at the nesting beach, to littering its migratory path with plastics, to creating an obstacle course with dense boat traffic in shipping lanes, to deploying longlines that could lure it to incidental death.

The travails of the turtle tell much about the greater ocean management story - the multiple threats that must be addressed to keep threatened marine species, and whole ecosystems, alive and well. The leatherback becomes a proxy for how we need to be holistic and integrate management to get it right for other species that depend on ocean health, including our own.

But the turtle story, described by blogs or in tweets, is more than informative - it motivates. The narrative is made even more compelling by the power of video clips, going viral across the cyberspace. On YouTube you can track the turtle in real time, and even see what the turtle sees as it navigates the world ocean. There is nothing like a video clip to create empathy and concern.

Concern matters because those who are concerned can engage. In this new age of social media, ways to engage are almost limitless, and the call to action is communicated across networks in milliseconds. In another example of how social media can help drive better management, consider its power to recruit people to monitor what is going on at sea, and to report trouble. In an instant, volunteers can spring to action to report activity that threatens our leatherback: an illegal fishery, a poaching operation, a case of harassment. The monitoring might spur activism, but it can also supplement conventional (and expensive) surveillance, enhancing management capacity.

EBM planners would do well to recognize the power of social media to inform a wide public that might otherwise not be engaged, and promote and coalesce human interest around marine issues. And managers could be well served by fostering these connections, not just between people, but between people and the rest of the planet that we share.

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