Some ecosystems can undergo regime shifts to alternative compositions of species. Although ecological indicators can identify approaching regime shifts, we propose that rapid changes in the social drivers underlying ecosystem change may provide additional and potentially earlier indicators of impending shifts. We demonstrate this by reconstructing the underlying social drivers of four iconic marine regime shifts: Pacific kelp forests, Northwest Atlantic continental shelf, Jamaican coral reefs, and the Chesapeake Bay estuary. In all cases, a range of social drivers - including opening of lucrative markets, technological innovations, and policies that enhanced the driver - ultimately prompted these ecosystem shifts. Drawing on examples emerging from environmental management practice, we present three practical recommendations for using social drivers as early indicators: monitor social change, determine social trigger points, and identify policy responses. We argue that accounting for the underlying social drivers of ecosystem change could improve decision making.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics