Oysters, Livelihoods, and Anthropology

A research blog by Adriane Michaelis

Hurricane Season


I’ve been living in hurricane-susceptible areas ever since I left Michigan in 2005.  This year’s hurricane season, however, has been more of a presence for me than most. And we still have almost a full month to go.

What made this year different?  Well, first, it’s been a pretty powerful season as far as hurricanes go, building upon trends.  Second, I’ve spent this year’s hurricane season living in a travel trailer – mobile, but vulnerable, and always located along the coast.  Third, my research continually introduces me to more and more people whose livelihoods depend on the water, and a major hurricane can really upend those livelihoods – literally and figuratively.  With each hurricane warning, people, communities, and landscapes are on my mind.

First this year brought Florence to the Carolinas.  I watched track updates on my phone from my nearly sea-level campground on Maryland’s eastern shore, ready to move the trailer to higher ground if needed (and grateful for the offers of driveways and homes).  As the storm made its way west across the Atlantic, its certainty of making landfall at a town that was my home for 5 years only increased. As Michael hit Wilmington, I thought of friends who still lived there and the beaches, marshes, and swamps that I spent so many hours in.  And I thought of the oyster farmers trying to build North Carolina’s oyster aquaculture industry – most of whom I’ve yet to meet, but through the magic of social media get to keep up with daily. Those who prepared for the storm and secured their gear and oysters still experienced damage and had to hold off on any sales until water quality was back to normal after storm.

Several weeks after Florence hit the Carolinas, I drove down to the Carolina border to see family. It was a long slow drive down Highway 17, passing still-flooded roads and homes with furniture, clothing, and all other types of material possession sitting out at the curb, water-logged, damaged, and waiting for pick-up. I bypassed Wilmington, as recommended by every highway advisory and friends that only recently made it back in town (but incidentally not by my GPS).

GPS directed me to a flooded road.

I gave my GPS one chance after it insisted for so long that it had a better route. It lied. (There is, in fact, a road under that flooded cut).  Photo by: Adriane Michaelis

Admittedly, I was dropping the dogs off in South Carolina on my way to the Florida panhandle for a non-research related celebration.  Not one to miss an opportunity to talk oysters (as every single person who was around me that weekend can confirm), I worked with an oyster farm in Panacea, FL (just east of the Apalachicola National Forest).  Matthew and Hollie Hodges of Wakulla Mystique Oyster Farm let me join them for a beautiful day working oysters on their lease, and shared their story as well as the story of Wakulla and Apalachicola oyster industries – which, incidentally have taken different paths even though the wild oyster harvest from these two counties (Wakulla and Franklin) is inherently linked. Matthew told me about his own path from working the water as a wild oyster harvester to an oyster farmer and the possibilities ahead for Wakulla’s aquaculture industry.

Wakulla Mystique Oyster Farm

Matthew and Hollie Hodges sort oysters from their lease in the waters off of Wakulla County, FL. Photo by: Adriane Michaelis.

One week later I thought of Matt and Hollie, their oysters, and their neighboring oyster farmers as Hurricane Michael lined up for the panhandle.  Like Wilmington, oyster aquaculture in the Florida panhandle is a fairly young industry – many farmers are only a few years in to their new business.  Anyone who makes their living off of the water doesn’t take an approaching hurricane lightly. Wild harvesters risk losing their fish stock as well as their boats (and homes and everything else that makes a waterfront community).  Oyster farmers face those same fears as well, but their stock is a little different. They risk losing oysters that they have purchased as larvae or seed, cared for, tended, and helped grow until they’re ready for market. They also typically have additional gear used to house and work oysters.  These features could mean that they have more to lose depending on the impact of a storm and one’s own financial stability. (Sidenote:  Stability is something I’m investigating in my own research, and for many, stability offered by oyster aquaculture is one of its major selling points when compared to work in a wild fishery.  So, even though an oyster farmer may have more to lose to a major storm event, they also may have an enhanced ability to respond and recover. Stay tuned.)

Here, Wakulla Mystique oysters are grown using a long-line system. This photo was taken just a week or two before Hurricane Michael moved through their lease. Photo by: Adriane Michaelis.

Fortunately, Matt and his Wakulla Mystiques made it through Michael well enough.  This wasn’t the case for everyone in the hurricane’s path, as highlighted in various news stories.  The Apalachicola oyster industry, in particular, received attention because of its tenuous future.   Oyster farmers in the area worked to recover their gear and assess the damage caused by the historic Category 4 Hurricane.

I experienced the tail-end of Michael from my campground in Virginia.  As Michael, which had slowed to a tropical storm at that point, brought rain, heavy wind, and tornadoes to the Middle Neck of Virginia, the dogs and I sheltered in a campground bathroom with fellow campers (and their dogs and cats).  We made it through the storm fine – though I second-guessed how smart it was to spend the night in the trailer even after the tornado warnings ended. We lost power and water for only a few days, but other parts of the county took longer.

The dogs and I sheltered in the campground bathroom during the storm.

My research team can be pretty go-with-the-flow and the dogs handled our bathroom shelter experience well. (Close cropping to preserve the privacy of our storm companions). Photo by: Adriane Michaelis

With a few weeks left in the Atlantic hurricane season, hopefully we’ve seen the last of major storms.  Coastal communities continue to recover and some are still trying to recover from last year’s hurricanes.  Just in case you’d like to help, here are a few options to aid those impacted by hurricanes Florence and Michael:

  • Oyster South with the Pensacola Bay Oyster Co. are selling shirts to raise funds for oyster farmers impacted by Hurricane Michael in the panhandle.  Click here to order a shirt and note #PanhandleProud with your order.
  • The Red Cross always accepts donations to assist with all hurricane relief. Click here to support Red Cross efforts.



Links cited above:


Hitting the Road/Welcome to Virginia

At the end of September, I bid farewell to Maryland (for now, anyway) and headed south.  I’ve spent the past 8 years studying oysters and the people who work with them in Maryland, so the opportunity to do the same elsewhere is exciting and a little scary.  Throughout my time in Maryland I had the chance to meet some wonderful people, many of whom I’ve been able to keep in contact with and look forward to hearing their oyster and life updates.  Eight years is a good chunk of time to spend building networks and relationships, and I am well aware of that as I move into other regions.


Coming to an oyster town near you — At the end of September, the dogs and I loaded up and headed south.

I write now from Virginia, where I’ve been laying the groundwork for this phase of the project over the last year, with the help of some key local support.  I’ve already had many great discussions and interviews, and spoken with people who are extremely knowledgeable about Virginia’s oyster industry.  Even though the Maryland border is just north, differences between the states’ oyster industries are already apparent.

One major difference is sheer numbers.  My project focuses on oyster aquaculture, and the number of growers within an hour of my Gloucester home base was initially a bit of a shock.  A quick internet search returned over 50 different operations – within a 40-ish mile radius.  Thankfully, these numbers have allowed me to stay busy with interviews with people working in all aspects of the industry.  Next I’ll focus efforts on watermen (and women) involved in the state’s public or wild fisheries, while still talking to as many oyster farmers, hatchery operators, and seed suppliers as I’m able.


One of my first stops in Virginia was Purcell’s Seafood, where I was able to sample both wild-caught and farm-raised oysters. Can you tell the difference?

The age of the industry is another difference I’ve noticed as I talk to folks in Virginia who have been growing oysters for nearly two decades.  The majority of oyster growers I spoke with in Maryland have been involved in aquaculture for under 10 years, many less than 5.  Where this seems to have a large impact, and related to my previous post, is the length of time it takes to have a lease approved.  Here in Virginia, the pattern I’ve observed thus far is that leases applied for decades ago went through the process in a matter of months, whereas new leases (much like their counterparts in Maryland) take on average several years.

In the remaining month or so I have in Virginia, I’m sure I’ll continue to learn more about their industry-specific successes, challenges, and regulatory nuances.

The leasing process, AKA the waiting game.

Early on in my Maryland interviews, the length of time it takes between lease application and approval emerged as a regular theme.  I ask oyster growers what are some of the biggest challenges they’ve already faced while establishing their new aquaculture business, and what do they see as the biggest obstacles moving forward.  Time is a biggie.

For many, it takes over a year between application and approval.  This doesn’t include the amount of time spent preparing the business plan, identifying the site, and completing the application before submitting it.  And “over a year” is on the short end of the leasing process time frame.  I’ve spoken with leaseholders that have waited nearly five years, but the average seems to be around two.  Those growers who have been involved in Maryland oyster aquaculture for longer periods of time, however, emphasize that the process has improved.

Oyster lease

In many cases, it takes over a year til approval of a lease application, as with the lease shown here (3 years).  Also, yep, that’s an oyster lease. Not that visually upsetting…  (Photo by: Adriane Michaelis)

What’s the hold-up, you might wonder.  Well, unsurprisingly, it’s a complex process and there are many things that can slow it down.  Sure, it takes time to work through the system, even with a perfectly sited location, impeccably designed business plan, and all the attention to detail one can imagine.  Meeting the requirements of both state and federal standards that cover everything from human health to waterway traffic to interaction with other aquatic species takes time to evaluate.  But, there are other things that can slow down that process even more.

Protests are a common roadblock, but are a necessary part of the leasing process.  Each lease application, if it meets the essential requirements, is subject to a public comment and protest period.  Public notice is given, and if anyone has concerns they have the ability to voice those concerns.  Two protest types feature most often in my interviews: 1) bottom conflict with other fisheries and 2) viewshed concerns.  Increasingly, it is the latter protest that I hear the most. (These protest concerns will be covered in separate posts.)


Overlap with historic clam bottom is a possible cause for lease protest in Maryland. Here, a Talbot County clammer begins his day harvesting razor clams (the clams can be seen working their way up the belt). (Photo by: Adriane Michaelis)

Through my research, I’m identifying what the common challenges to aquaculture development are, not to simply point out what’s annoying or a hindrance, but to better understand the source of each challenge and make recommendations for improvement.  I consider “improvement” as it relates to entire communities – oyster growers, commercial fishermen, waterfront property owners, other community members…the list goes on.  Not only do I want to describe what’s stopping oyster growers, but also consider workable solutions to meet the concerns of those outside of the aquaculture industry.

Oysters Do More for the Chesapeake Than You Might Think

For the past two years, I’ve traveled tidewater Maryland, asking people, “why aquaculture?” I ask why they decided to get involved in oyster aquaculture or, for commercial fishermen who aren’t, why not?  This very basic question begins the discussion with each person I talk to, in order to understand on a larger level what motivates individuals towards or away from oyster aquaculture.

When I began interviews, I had a few ideas about why people might be interested in or wary of oyster aquaculture.  I thought money might be a big one – both the ability to make money from farming oysters as well as the money needed to start your own oyster farming business.  I also wondered how much the ecological role played by oysters influenced individuals who have entered the aquaculture industry.   Are people getting into oyster aquaculture because it’s a ‘green’ business?

You may already know about the beneficial things oysters do. They filter the water, contributing to a “cleaner” bay, because they ingest the nitrogen and phosphorus entering the waterway. They provide habitat, creating homes and hiding places for all sorts of small critters. They deliver a benthic buffet, serving as a food source themselves and providing refuge for many other animals that the Chesapeake food web depends upon. These benefits oysters provide for their ecosystem or more aptly, their social-ecological system (a term that recognizes the human role in an ecosystem), are called ecosystem services.

Ecosystem services describe the benefits people receive from a system. The ecosystem services framework helps put a dollar value on just how much a healthy system (like the Chesapeake Bay, for example) may be worth when you consider on a large-scale all of the things it provides.

There are four categories of ecosystem service. Regulating services are the benefits received from regulation of ecosystem processes. One regulating service oysters provide is water quality maintenance. Provisioning services are the products obtained directly from ecosystems. This may be the one that you’re most familiar with — people eat oysters, and make money from the sale of oysters. Cultural services are the nonmaterial benefits obtained from ecosystems, and tend to be placed on the sidelines. Examples include tourism and recreation benefits. The fourth category, supporting services, are what’s necessary for the production of other services. For example, oyster reefs provide nursery habitats for other animals that in turn provide benefits to us. These categories are summarized in the figure included here.

Oyster Ecosystem Services

Figure 1. Oysters provide many ecosystem services, but the associated cultural services are poorly understood and ignored. Credit: Adriane Michaelis. Information cited from Millennium Assessment and Pacific Shellfish Institute.

As I began analyzing my interview data, especially when thinking about the “why or why not aquaculture” question, I started to look at the responses through this lens of ecosystem services.  What was most interesting to me is the most commonly mentioned service type. People aren’t talking about the boatloads of money they might make, or how much they may need to spend to get started. They’re not talking about the pounds of nitrogen that one cage of oysters can capture, or the local water quality enhanced by their oysters.

Instead, they talk about how aquaculture gives them the opportunity to continue working on the water, or share a business with their children. It has a certain “feel-good” aspect that is appealing and is a welcome change from working behind a desk for some. On the other hand, for those not interested in aquaculture, it represents a different sort of independence when compared to public fisheries that some might view as constraining. These are just a few of the cultural service themes popping up in my interviews, but they suggest that this oft-ignored category of ecosystem services is important.

Watermen-Oyster Grower on skiff

One recurring theme in interviews is that aquaculture enables watermen to continue working the water, enjoying time spent outdoors, albeit with a slightly different method of harvest. Photo by: Adriane Michaelis.

Thinking about the answer to my introductory question “Why/why not aquaculture” has inspired me to continue this inquiry in a more targeted fashion. Cultural services are poorly understood, especially when it comes to shellfish aquaculture. Yet, my data show that cultural services might be the most important thing to people considering a career in oyster aquaculture. Informed by the data collected within my Coastal Resilience and Sustainability Fellowship, I’ll pursue this research for my full dissertation.

Beginning this fall and supported by a National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant as well as an Explorers Club Washington Group Exploration and Field Research Grant, I’ll work in Maryland, Virginia, Alabama, Florida, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island in order to describe the cultural services associated with oyster aquaculture. I’ll be working and talking with oyster farmers, commercial fishermen, and community members in all 6 states, to see just what the cultural services associated with aquaculture are and how they compare to cultural services associated with public fisheries. Can aquaculture match the social and cultural components of a public fishery? I’m hoping I’ll at least be closer to an answer.

Commercial workboats in a harbor

As aquaculture grows alongside public fisheries, it’s important to understand if it can match the social and cultural components of public fisheries. Photo by: Adriane Michaelis


An amended version of this post was originally written for and shared on the Maryland Sea Grant Fellowship Experiences Blog. 

Inside the Degree: Thank you, thank you, thank you

Even though I have an acknowledgements page on this site, and a slide at the end of every presentation, it can never be said enough how much I appreciate every participant who has contributed to my research.  Each person I talk to and work with is voluntarily letting me into their lives, to ask questions, learn about their work, and ask even more questions.

There are also a handful of people who have welcomed me at the last minute to work with them when an interview had to be cancelled or rescheduled.  For these “go-to” oyster farmers and watermen, I am especially grateful because they help me make the most of an unpredictable field schedule.  When I don’t have a new interview lined up, I know I can join them and continue participant observation while I help on the farm or on the water.

As I mentioned in the last post, often this research has me feeling like a telemarketer as I try to recruit interview participants, so I cannot overstate how thankful I am to each and every person who agrees to take part.


Social Media Post

Helping sort oysters doesn’t even match the thanks owed to my research participants. (Here’s a pic stolen from Madhouse Oysters– they’ve let me crash their oyster party on more than one occasion.)

Inside the Degree: My Life as a Telemarketer

One thing you might not think of when considering a degree/career/life in anthropology, is that sometimes you may feel like a telemarketer.  This isn’t necessarily what I had in mind when I envisioned my research as I transitioned from coastal ecology into anthropology.  Nevertheless, I spend far more time than I would like thinking about and making cold calls.

Most of the time, I’ve been given someone’s contact info from another project participant.  So, the calls aren’t completely cold.  Hopefully they’ve even been given a heads up that I’ll be calling.  Still, I have to psyche myself up – even as a ‘people person’ I don’t like having to call someone up to ask for their time – and prepare to: 1) introduce myself, 2) explain my research, and 3) ask for their help.  All in as little amount of time as possible.  Often, this is as a voicemail, and I try to get out the basics as concisely as I can, while not talking as fast as I can.

Making calls is an essential part of the interview process…whether I like it or not.

Some of you, especially those who haven’t worked with watermen, might be surprised to learn that in many cases, the voicemail is full!  No message left.  My strange Detroit number on the caller ID.  Do I call that person back?  When does it become harassment?  In that situation, I stick to a three-call rule.  I might try that person again (after a certain amount of time, not within the same day), but after three ‘no answers’, I accept defeat and move along.

In some cases, I actually get a call back!  That’s the best.  I can’t accurately describe how grateful I am to get a return call after someone has listened to my voicemail.  That means they not only listened to my spiel, but were interested (or kind) enough to call back to try and set up an interview. I didn’t just catch them at the right time, they actually called back.  Who knew return phone calls could be so exciting?

Any returned calls are always appreciated, as are all interviews, conversations, and chances to work with oyster farmers and fishermen.  But that’s a topic for another post…


A Project Summary in 4 Slides

Often slideshow presentations can be long and painful.  Other times, they can be helpful in providing a quick snapshot of your work.  Initially I created these for my other social media efforts, but thought, “why not share it on the blog also?”.  Here’s the quick and dirty of my cultural services research:


P.S.  You can find me on Instagram, where I’m a bit more active.  Search my name or “2DogsAGirlAndAnOysterTour”. (Get it, like the show?)

Participant Observation. Huh?

A large part of my research involves participant observation.  It’s one of those peculiar approaches by social scientists that just happens to be a very effective, albeit sometimes informal, way of better understanding your research topic and community.  Participant observation is one way of learning by doing. In my case I work alongside oyster growers and commercial fishermen in order to get a better understanding of their day-to-day.  These early mornings and sometimes long days provide a much better glimpse into their world than I could get from a simple survey or set of interview questions.

Being an active participant in their workday also may shine the light on issues that I wouldn’t have understood or recognized as important without them coming up naturally in a seemingly random conversation.  While pulling cages on a lease, culling oysters on public bar, shucking oysters at a local festival, and even just chit-chatting at the dock, I’ve had many eye-opening discussions that help me think about my research questions in a different way.  And while I knew a good bit about oysters before starting this project (you’ve shucked a thousand oysters, you’ve shucked ‘em all, right?), I continue to learn something knew each day I’m out.

I’ve even learned a few things about myself via participant observation:

  1. I’m terrible at eye-balling a blue crab and knowing if it’s big enough to keep before having to dip net it.  An efficient trotliner, I am not.  I scoop them all and sort later.
  2. I can shuck an oyster, but cannot keep up with a line of hungry oyster-eaters at a Baltimore oyster festival.  And for each person that ordered a dozen  while the professional shuckers were competing on stage, I hope they were worth the wait.  Thank you to those who kept their order to under 12.
  3. Everyone has their own little tips and tricks specific to their operation, it’s a skill (I think) to remember just how each group works.  Whether it’s a special cup shape (the curved-valve half of the oyster), a certain way to arrange them in the box for market, or specific rules for rinsing, keeping track of different preferences is a project all on its own.
Captain White's Seafood, Washington DC

Even a trip to my local fish market might be considered a form a participant observation, as I’m involved in one more step of the process.

Livelihood Diversification and Maryland Oysters: What it means, and why we care.

“Livelihood diversification” describes the process by which an individual or household takes on multiple income-generating activities.

In other words, it occurs when people have more than one job or way of making money.  Often, people diversify their incomes or livelihoods in order to make more money and gain stability in the face of unpredictable or reduced economies.  Fisheries certainly fit that bill, what with regulations that change, predators that wax and wane, and uncertain environmental conditions that vary every year. Understanding processes of livelihood diversification is important when considering how new livelihood or job opportunities may impact a community, a resource, or even an entire ecosystem. For example, if you are a lifelong fisherman faced with putting your children through college or paying for medical insurance, you might take on contract work for the state to do surveys. Or, you might assist with an aquaculture operation, or offer to take out tourists for a fee. And it may come to pass that the job you took on for extra income ends up becoming the main sustainer, depending on the situation.

As a Coastal Resilience and Sustainability Fellow, I’ve been investigating livelihood diversification within Maryland’s oyster industry.  More specifically, I want to know how individuals are incorporating oyster aquaculture – the growing, farming, or cultivation of oysters – into their existing livelihood portfolios.  (Livelihood portfolios are a fancy name to describe the combination of all the jobs a person holds.) Are they adding aquaculture as one more income-generating activity?  Are they replacing another job with aquaculture? Is aquaculture one of many jobs, or is it their only job?

Oyster setting tank in front of corn field as example of livelihood diversification.

Livelihood diversification can take many forms, such as combining land and water-based agriculture activities. Here, corn grows alongside a tank of young oysters awaiting transfer to an aquaculture lease or public bottom. Both are income-generating activities that contribute to household income. Credit: Adriane Michaelis.

Understanding how aquaculture supplements incomes can offer insight into the trajectory of not only Maryland’s oyster aquaculture industry, but also its public fisheries.  For example, in my interviews I ask oyster growers if they have stopped working in a public fishery after beginning work in aquaculture.  Answering this question may show whether or not oyster aquaculture is contributing to reduced fishing activity in the public oyster fishery as well as other public fisheries.

Bushel basket of oysters.

Part of my interest in studying livelihood diversification is to be able to answer the question: How does having a year-round oyster fishery (oyster aquaculture) influence activity in the seasonal public oyster fishery? Credit: Adriane Michaelis.

Over the past nearly two years, I’ve worked with and interviewed oyster growers throughout Maryland. As I’m finishing up this project, I’m still conducting interviews and don’t have the final data ready just yet, but have already started to see some interesting outcomes and patterns.

  • Livelihood diversification is occurring, with nearly 70 percent of growers interviewed thus far listing aquaculture as one of many sources of income. Diversification seems to be more common among growers who are or were commercial watermen. Based on my data, non-waterman growers (oyster growers who have never worked in the state’s public fisheries) are more likely to replace a previous source of income with oyster aquaculture, and are also more likely to have aquaculture as their only job.
  • Waterman-growers (those who are or were watermen), on the other hand, are often adding aquaculture to the other jobs and activities they are doing, in many cases as just one more fishery. For many, aquaculture provides a back-up or safety net if the catch is low elsewhere. With this in mind, it may not be too surprising that, based on my interviews, most waterman-growers have not left the public oyster fishery after getting started with oyster aquaculture.


Summary of livelihood diversification preliminary findings

Data from my study thus far show that livelihood diversification is occurring within Maryland’s oyster aquaculture industry, with some differences related to whether or not participants are or were commercial watermen. Credit: Adriane Michaelis.

All of my conclusions are preliminary but, once the project is complete, they will help highlight how a growing oyster aquaculture industry might shape the direction of Maryland’s seafood industry.  Are there things the state can do to encourage more aquaculture? How would officials go about it? Understanding livelihood diversification is just one piece of the puzzle in my study that aims to describe who is involved in Maryland oyster aquaculture, as well as why they decided to enter the industry.  For a description of the full project, see the research project page here.

And finally, why should we care? Oysters in Maryland’s part of the Chesapeake Bay are at less than one percent of historic levels. Putting more oysters in the Chesapeake Bay helps filter the water, increases biodiversity, and adds jobs in coastal towns without a lot of other commercial opportunity. Oyster aquaculture can provide some pretty amazing things, but there may be more to the equation in trying to entice commercial fishermen to get involved.  Stay tuned for my next “Fellowship Experiences” update that will discuss some of the motivations surrounding why people are entering Maryland’s aquaculture industry. It’s not always about the money, or the water filtered.


An amended version of this post was originally written for and shared on the Maryland Sea Grant Fellowship Experiences Blog. 



Indonesian Connections: Valuing Land and Sea

Ecosystem services are the benefits provided by an ecosystem to people.  For example, a saltmarsh ecosystem provides a nursery habitat for many species that may later provide food for humans, either directly or indirectly (See Barbier et al., 2011 or a summary by James Cook University).  A saltmarsh also minimizes the impact of storms and wave action on adjacent shorelines, providing humans protection against such events.  These are just two examples related to saltmarshes, but ecosystem services more broadly form the basis for a means of valuing the goods provided by an ecosystem, beyond the raw materials we use directly or sell. In Indonesia, these services are most often discussed surrounding rainforest conservation and coastal wetland protection.

Indonesia is home to over 88 million hectares of rainforest.  The maintenance of this forest is critical to sustaining  the diversity of ecosystem services provided by forests.  One important service is carbon sequestration, a process by which rainforests remove and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, thus reducing the impacts of climate change.  An approach to maintaining these services involved the creation of the REDD+ program.  This program, reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, as the name suggests, aims to limit carbon emissions through forest protection.  One aspect of REDD+ entails the ability to earn credits (i.e. money) by reducing destruction and carbon emissions (see here for an explanation of how this is envisioned by the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership).  Indonesia has benefited through the willingness of countries, like Norway, to financially support REDD+ efforts, but to date, efforts to reduce deforestation have not met the agreed benchmarks and money has not been exchanged (Jong, 2017).

Wisma Leuser Sibayak in Bukit Lawang

One approach to reducing deforestation is through the promotion of other industries, like ecotourism. In Bukit Lawang, a village in North Sumatra, ecotourism is a large source of income and provides a different way of benefiting from tropical rainforests. Photo by Adriane Michaelis.

While in Indonesia, we met with a number of academic researchers who expressed concern at the slow pace that Indonesia’s REDD+ efforts have progressed.  Still, these experts in the field are not without hope, and think there is potential in the program.

A more recent, but similar, approach to reducing the impact and progression of climate change focuses on “blue carbon”.  Blue carbon describes the ability of coastal habitats, particularly mangroves, salt marshes, and coral reefs to sequester carbon (in addition to a suite of other ecosystem services). When I was a student in the Indonesia course in 2016, discussions surrounding blue carbon and mangrove protection piqued my interest.  Mangrove forests and sea grasses are particularly strong at carbon sequestration and storage, thus when these coastal habitats are destroyed, even more is at risk (relative to tropical rainforest) as a greater amount of carbon is released into the atmosphere (Alongi et al., 2016).  This isn’t to suggest that rainforests shouldn’t also be protected, but that coastal habitats have thus far been undervalued for their role in reducing carbon emissions and the related impact of climate change.

During this second trip to Indonesia, blue carbon again came up discussions.  Unfortunately, it seems that in the two years since my first visit, little progress has been made with regard to blue carbon.  It is not that mangroves have not been protected, or even restored in some cases, but local community compensation programs (to reward mangrove protection) have not really taken hold.

Mangrove Beach in Bunaken

Mangrove forests, which line many Indonesian island shores including Bunaken Island shown here, are important both locally and at a much larger scale for the services they provide.  Photo by Adriane Michaelis

In both of these Indonesian cases, we see examples of payment for environmental services programs that have the potential to reward local communities and organizations directly for their efforts to preserve, restore, and improve forest habitat.  Also in both cases, the end goal of financial benefits – benefits that would subsidize local incomes lost through reduced forest-related livelihood activities – have not occurred.

Back home in Maryland, the ecosystem services associated with oysters are discussed as a means to incentivize oyster aquaculture practices.  Scientists have been working to quantify the amount of nitrogen sequestered by oysters, the biodiversity associated with different types of aquaculture gear, in addition to the economic contribution of oyster farming.  One of the applied aims of this research is to provide the framework for nutrient trading or compensation to occur for those who contribute ecosystem services via their oyster aquaculture operations (Cornwell, et. al, 2016).  While most oyster growers would appreciate the ability to receive additional compensation for their “green” business practices, other examples of less than successful payment for environmental services (as in Indonesia) serve as cautionary tales.  In principle, these programs seem like great ways to support environmental protection, but in practice they are challenging to implement.


Why am I talking about Indonesia?  See “Interdisciplinarity in Indonesia” posted earlier this month.

References and Useful Links

  • Alongi, D. M., Murdiyarso, D., Fourqurean, J. W., Kauffman, J. B., Hutahaean, A., Crooks, S., … & Pidgeon, E. (2016). Indonesia’s blue carbon: a globally significant and vulnerable sink for seagrass and mangrove carbon. Wetlands ecology and management, 24(1), 3-13.
  • Barbier, E. B., Hacker, S. D., Kennedy, C., Koch, E. W., Stier, A. C., & Silliman, B. R. (2011). The value of estuarine and coastal ecosystem services. Ecological monographs, 81(2), 169-193.
  • Cornwell, J., Rose, J., Kellogg, L., Luckenbach, M., Bricker, S., Paynter, K., … & Lacatell, A. (2016). Panel Recommendations on the Oyster BMP Nutrient and Suspended Sediment Reduction Effectiveness Determination Decision Framework and Nitrogen and Phosphorus Assimilation in Oyster Tissue Reduction Effectiveness for Oyster Aquaculture Practices. DRAFT for CBP Partnership and Public Review.
  • Conservation International (2017). Blue Carbon: Mitigating Climate Change along our Coasts.  Accessed February 24, 2018 from https://www.conservation.org/projects/Pages/mitigating-climate-change-on-coasts-blue-carbon.aspx.
  • Jong, H.N. (2017). Indonesia tries to learn from Brazil’s success in REDD+. Monga Bay.  Accessed February 23, 2018 from https://news.mongabay.com/2017/11/indonesia-tries-to-learn-from-brazils-success-in-redd/.
  • MongaBay (2006). Indonesia Tropical Rainforests.  Accessed February 23, 2018 from https://rainforests.mongabay.com/20indonesia.htm.
  • TropWater Tropical Water and Aquatic Ecosystem Research at James Cook University, Australia. https://research.jcu.edu.au/tropwater/research-programs/coastal-estuarine-ecology/protection-and-repair-of-australias-saltmarshes/importance-of-saltmarshes
  • United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (2018). REDD+ Web Platform.  Accessed February 23, 2018 from http://redd.unfccc.int/.
  • World Bank (2018). Forest Carbon Partnership Facility.  Accessed February 23, 2018 from https://www.forestcarbonpartnership.org/carbon-fund-0.
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