The Bahamas Biocomplexity Project was divided into five main working groups in order to tackle and integrate various research components. In addition to these working groups there were several organizations that met periodically to advise on and develop educational and outreach materials related to marine conservation.
Connectivity Working Group
The BBP’s Connectivity Working Group aimed to understand how different parts of The Bahamas are ecologically “connected” with each other and with neighboring parts of the Caribbean. The group addressed several main objectives revolving around analyses of oceanographic circulation patterns and the connectivity of marine populations. The degree of populational connectivity for various species within the archipelago influences how various configurations of marine protected areas serve to conserve such species.
Understanding the basic dynamics of water movement throughout The Bahamas was an important starting point for understanding the dispersal dynamics of marine organisms into and within the archipelago. Water flowing within The Bahamas appears to originate primarily from the North Atlantic subtropical gyre to the east, with some mixing from the Western Caribbean via the Straits of Florida to the west. Other data helped calibrate circulation models that allowed further quantification of circulation dynamics. These models, in turn, were used to estimate potential dispersal of marine species. By tracking “virtual” particles that were released in various places and were then driven passively for various periods of time by these simulated circulation dynamics, researchers assessed potential dispersal patterns that may connect subpopulations from place to place.
Other species, especially those with active dispersal behaviors, are carried much less passively by currents. With these organisms, circulation dynamics may be poor indicators of populational connectivity. One approach for such species was to adapt the virtual particle method above by endowing the dispersing particles with simple behaviors that approximate those known from various species. A complementary approach was to estimate the actual dispersal of certain species using genetic analyses of population structure. Species whose population genetic structures were studied included staghorn corals ( Acropora cervicornis ), queen conch ( Strombus gigas ), and spiny lobsters ( Panulirus argus ).
Habitat Working Group
The design of networks of marine protected areas (MPAs) for the conservation of biological diversity requires a good understanding of the distribution of that biodiversity. Unfortunately, the knowledge of the finer scale, ecological factors that influence how species and populations are distributed across environmental gradients and within different habitat types is often lacking. Individual MPA site designations are frequently made on the basis of important but relatively ad hoc assessments of habitat quality and social factors. MPA networks should ideally be designed, at least in part, with an objective base of information that allows planners to efficiently ensure that all major pieces of the ecosystem are protected.
Habitats provide useful units for accounting for biological diversity as well as individual species of interest. Because individual species in coral reef ecosystems frequently make use of particular combinations of various shallow, benthic habitats, and because biodiversity becomes associated with habitats, analyses of habitat distribution allow for the systematic assessment of both biodiversity and component species. As a consequence, the BBP’s Habitat Working Group used detailed field-based surveys along with satellite imagery to produce benthic habitat maps that provided key data for multiple aspects of the project. By linking habitat maps to associations between specific habitat types and species assemblages, we tested, calibrated, and then extrapolated how different species assemblages can be conserved with different MPA network configurations.
Social Working Group
A central goal of the BBP’s Social Working Group was to identify potential socioeconomic and cultural impacts that may result from the establishment of marine protected areas (MPAs). Hopefully, such results will lead to an improved process of designating the types of MPA (e.g., no-take zones versus gear restrictions, etc.), choosing their locations, and planning for both short-term and long-term impacts, such as fishing displacement, job displacement, and increased development associated with growth in tourism and other sectors.
The SWG used surveys, guided interviews, focus groups, and participant observation in Bahamian settlements in order to: 1) understand local perceptions of change in marine resource availability; 2) identify trends in local use of marine resources; 3) identify local and external drivers of social and ecological change; 4) identify sources of information about the environment; 5) identify local perceptions of the utility of regulations, including MPAs; and 6) characterize people's cultural attachments to the sea. Some variables necessary for modeling, such as fishing pressure, investments in gear and target species during different seasons, are more easily quantifiable than other, more value-laden activities, such as the personal pleasure derived from recreational fishing, or the value of coral reefs for future generations. Even quantification of the more quantifiable activities, however, can be quite challenging since fishing and marketing occur at multiple scales, ranging from larger commercial endeavors ("smack boats") to smaller, individual operations working in the informal economy.
Even more challenging than estimating the impacts of regulatory changes on single groups, such as fishing households, is to understand and model the potential feedbacks that may occur as changes in one activity influence others. For example, the establishment of an MPA that supports recreational catch-and-release fishing and diving may attract tourists to that area. To cater to these tourists, new hotels, dive operations, and seafood restaurants may be established, potentially contributing to changes in water quality, boat traffic, habitat degradation, and overfishing pressures on nearby natural resources. What will be the net impact of these secondary effects on the local ecosystem? Such questions need to be answered by linking socioeconomic analyses to inferences from other environmental studies.
Modeling Working Group
The BBP’s Modeling Working Group developed quantitative models to integrate selected components of the BBP across different spatial and temporal scales. These models range from abstract, analytical modeling to more spatially explicit, numerical simulations as the analyses increase in spatial and component complexity. Ultimately, dynamic simulations – built on a foundation of empirical concepts and data – will provide new ways of understanding how coral reef ecosystems and human communities may respond to various MPA network scenarios.
At the same time, due to the uncertainties involved with quantifying human and natural dynamics, the inherent complexity of these systems, and the likelihood that certain factors will need to be grossly simplified to create the models, accurate predictions of outcomes will not be possible. In other words, one shouldn’t expect to be able to get simple, single answers to complex questions. Rather, by testing the importance of different factors to various results, and by repeating the simulations thousands of times, we can develop better probabilistic understandings of what drives the behaviors of the linked human and natural system. In this way, researchers can provide tools and weighted results that can help decision makers better understand the system and the range of possible outcomes given different scenarios.
GIS Working Group
The BBP’s GIS Working Group developed a basic Geographic Information Systems (GIS) database to assist with data storage, access, visualization, and analysis of spatially explicit information from The Bahamas. The Bahamas Online Digital Map Atlas consisted of layers of data from the rich data sets collected and generated by all of the working groups of the BBP, as well as a range of other layers including settlements, ports and marinas, dive sites, fisheries data, storm paths, bathymetry, remote images, status of various reefs, and benthic habitat distributions.
Education Interest Group
Given the importance of environmental outreach and education for conservation decision-making, the BBP worked to develop strong linkages between its marine research and education in The Bahamas and elsewhere. Members of the BBP met periodically with organizations in The Bahamas and the U.S. who are interested in aspects of outreach and education. These meetings were useful for reviewing the educational activities of the BBP and for strategic thinking about future education priorities and directions.
Some of the educational and outreach products include a companion guide to an exhibit on marine protected areas, new college curricula in marine conservation science, marine-related educational materials for schools, community outreach materials, exhibition materials at the American Museum of Natural History, and a booklet highlighting MPA-relevant research results for decision makers. In addition, various working groups sponsored field internships and collaborations for Bahamian college students and educators.