12 February 2016

Husband and wife offer complementary perspectives on coral reefs, fisheries and our place in the ecosystem

A Cumbrian bred ecologist met his social scientist wife while working together researching the impact of climate change on fish and fisheries in the Indian Ocean.

Now Professor Nick Graham, who was brought up in Windermere, and his wife, Dr Christina Hicks, have both joined the Lancaster Environment Centre at Lancaster University.

Nick is a community ecologist, tackling large scale questions surrounding coral reefs, including the impact of climate change and human activities. He has a Royal Society Fellowship, researching how coral reefs might look in the future, and the best ways to manage them.

“I’m interested in the patterns and processes by which degraded coral reefs recover, and how this can be influenced by management, and also in the ecological ramifications of fishing,” Nick explains.

Christina is an environmental social scientist whose research focusses on the governance of small scale fisheries, how they contribute cultural and nutritional benefits, and their vulnerability to climate change. 

“More recently, I’m examining the role of small-scale fisheries for food security, an area that is largely ignored.” says Christina.  “Small scale fisheries play a major role in isolated communities. Fish contain very important micro nutrients which are difficult to get in the first three years of life, and predict long term health and development.”

“I’m looking at how we can locally maximise the social mechanisms that get nutrients to the people who need them.”

Managing ecosystems and people

When they met Nick was based in Newcastle, Christina in Kenya, where her mother’s side of the family is from. As they worked together, they discovered a shared interest not only in coral reefs and fishing, but in a cross disciplinary approach to environmental problems.

“When you are managing an ecosystem you are also managing people, so we need to understand what motivates and determines people’s behaviour; and thus, how they are likely to respond to different ways of managing systems,” says Nick.

“People have to define the problem and own the solution,” says Christina. “A lot of work assumes that if we just improve the underlying ecosystem everyone will benefit. But, if we want to improve people’s wellbeing we have to understand how different people are able to benefit from that ecosystem.”

After spending several years at James Cook University in Australia, one of the world’s leading centres for coral reef research, and Stanford University in the US, they decided it was time to return to the UK.

Why Lancaster

“A big draw at Lancaster was the inter-disciplinary nature of the Lancaster Environment Centre because we wanted to come somewhere where we would be equally at home,” said Christina.

“We like the fact that the Lancaster Environment Centre is focused on tackling issues, on finding practical solutions,” says Nick.

“It also has an emerging strength in both high diversity tropical forest systems and research in Africa. We both work on tropical systems, particularly coral reefs, and have specific interests in Africa, so that was a draw as well.”

Another advantage is the local environment and countryside in this corner of England, which is known well to Nick, having been brought up in the Lake District.  “I was brought up in a family where environment was high on the agenda,” he says.

Working together

Nick now spends a portion of his time working with human geographers and other social scientists, linking his data with the data they collect on people. He and Christina jointly supervise a PhD student, have produced several papers and a book chapter together linking changes in coral reefs to the vulnerability of adjacent fishing communities.”

“With climate change both the ecosystem and the social system are going to look very different. Some species are winners and some are losers, we are in novel territory” says Nick.

“So management has to become more adaptive and experimental,” says Christina. “We need to monitor and respond to what actually happens, to try new approaches, and figure out which will be both fair and successful.”