Counting on maths to manage our oceans

# Counting on maths to manage our oceans

As an undergraduate student wishing to major in zoology, botany and applied mathematics, I received a letter from the board of one of my scholarships which read: “We don’t see the relevance of mathematics to conservation.” My scholarship was withdrawn after I refused to drop mathematics. In retrospect this was a mind-blowingly myopic comment, as I rapidly learnt that mathematics is to biology what oxygen is to fire. It is and remains the core of almost all the research I do today in marine natural resource management.

I rapidly learnt that mathematics is to biology what oxygen is to fire.

My father was a refugee to South Africa whose studies were cut short when he had to flee his home in Budapest during the Hungarian uprising of 1956. Both my parents worked extremely hard in jobs they didn’t enjoy, so they encouraged my siblings and me to strive for our dream jobs. I relied on scholarships to attend university and decided to study both of my passions, mathematics and biology, despite not knowing if I could ever combine them.

I always knew I wanted to be a scientist in the sense that I craved knowing more about the world around us. I loved learning about nature and I was gripped by the beauty and sophistication of mathematics. I dreamt about travelling the world and I wanted to help fix the world’s problems.

There are elements of all of these in my career today as a research scientist. However, as a child, the only images of scientists that I saw were of bearded men or narrowly focused, lab-coated, serious individuals mixing potions in a laboratory. I had no idea how I could become a successful scientist myself. I might have changed my mind if someone had explained how many years I would have to study!

It’s advantageous to have diverse perspectives when solving complex problems.

My early career interests always seemed too broad compared to those I worked with. My fieldwork ranged from studying limpets on rocky shores to participating in an extraordinary research voyage to Antarctica. This was combined with working as a lecturer in the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics at the University of Cape Town, and providing stock assessment advice on the abalone fishing industry.

I worked in a very male-dominated environment and after my two daughters were born, it was at times almost impossible to see how I could survive in the tough, demanding world of academia. This is one of the reasons I am so passionate nowadays to support junior female scientists, as a number of gender-based biases and inequities remain. It’s advantageous to have diverse perspectives when solving complex problems.

I was thrilled to be offered a research position at CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, in 2009. This provided the perfect springboard to establish exactly what I wanted to be doing: big projects that I gave a small name – MICE (Models of Intermediate Complexity for Ecosystem assessments).

The approach involves using all available field data to inform equations and models of marine systems, and underpin optimal management. This approach has been described as akin to Goldilocks trying to find that perfect porridge bowl – not too hot and not too cold. In this case, MICE aim to achieve the right level of complexity so we don’t ignore important connections in an ecosystem, but simultaneously are not overwhelmed with too much detail that we know too little about. MICE have had good uptake internationally.

Fisheries stock assessments, such as those used to inform quotas, are often quite narrowly focused but extremely rigorous. MICE expand these approaches to also account for predator-prey and other relationships in the environment, as well as how the environment influences the changes we observe.

The MICE approach has been described as akin to Goldilocks trying to find that perfect porridge bowl – not too hot and not too cold.

For example, we’re using MICE to help manage the crown-of-thorns starfish (Acanthaster planci) that is currently inflicting considerable damage to corals on the Great Barrier Reef. MICE are also helping us better understand the complex dynamics of the Northern Prawn Fishery in Australia, which focuses on several different species, some of which rely critically on freshwater flows from Gulf of Carpentaria rivers.

When I finished my PhD in 2004, I believed passionately that ecosystem management was the Next Big Thing. It took a few more years for me to realise that there were even bigger things looming. Climate change is one of the biggest challenges humans have ever faced. Along with increasing temperatures, more regular and more severe extremes predicted in the years ahead will lead to profound change in people’s livelihoods, the functioning of Earth’s ecosystems and the survival of species.

For the past 12 years I’ve worked closely with Torres Strait Islanders, who draw on thousands of years of traditional knowledge that has underpinned their long history of co-existing with nature.

Climate change can’t be solved by scientists alone. But science can help inform and support co-ordinated global action.

They are already seeing first-hand the impacts of climate change on their communities such as rising sea levels carving off sections of their low-lying islands. It’s important we start developing solutions to a very real and current problem.

I’m applying MICE and other scientific methods to predict what the impacts from climate change will be, how marine systems will look in the future, and what dependent communities and industries need to do to start planning effectively for the changes ahead.

Science has and continues to help us understand the world we live in and how to address the challenges presented. Climate change can’t be solved by scientists alone. But science can help inform and support co-ordinated global action. I’m glad my science career has mathematics as the right equation to help tackle the problem.