Transboundary governance for climate change adaptation in marine socio-ecological systems


Transboundary governance for climate change adaptation in marine socio-ecological systems

Transboundary governance for climate change adaptation in marine socio-ecological systems 750 1000 Ocean Decade

With over 40% of the global population living within 100km of the coast – a trend on the rise – and increasingly exposed to climate risks, urgent and innovative adaptation solutions are needed to face the many and diverse challenges to the communities and the ecosystems in these areas. Through a joint call for fellows launched by the AXA Research Fund and UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission as part of the Ocean Decade, seven ground-breaking postdoctoral research projects have been endorsed as part of the Ocean Decade and will strengthen science-based interventions for coastal livelihood preservation and resilience.

An environmental-social scientist from Kenya, Dr. Emmanuel Mbaru’s research project seeks to empirically quantify the impacts of climate change on fisheries. Focused mainly on Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique, the project will also examine how different legal structures in fisheries governance affect the ability to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

“I’m an interdisciplinary scholar but also have a specific interest in examining community vulnerability and environmental change,” Emmanuel says. “I use social science theories and ecological concepts to better understand conservation diffusion and the associated socio-ecological impacts, both on people and environment.”

As the largest carbon sink on the planet, the ocean is our greatest ally against climate change. Yet it is under increasing pressure, getting warmer, more acidic and losing its oxygen. This reality has led to changes in oceanic circulation and chemistry, rising sea levels, enhanced storm intensity, as well as changes in the diversity and abundance of marine species.[1]

“Despite growing evidence that climate change will keep disrupting marine ecosystems, climate impacts on fish stocks, fisheries and on the socio-economic conditions of those depending on these activities are rarely quantified,” details Emmanuel. “Studies carried out to date also lack consistency and have overlooked the most affected and threatened areas.”

A study from the journal Scientific Reports highlights that global fisheries revenues could drop by 35% more than the projected decrease in catches by the 2050s under high CO2 emission scenarios, with tropical areas being the most affected.[2] In fact, these regions are already witnessing significant declines in marine fish stock, threatening the coastal communities whose livelihoods and economies mainly rely on marine fisheries, but also the resilience of ecosystems.

While increasing uncertainty in climate poses a major threat to marine fisheries in the long run, a plethora of studies suggest that changes in governance and management systems may likewise have a devastating impact on fisheries in the short term.

“In fisheries’ socio-ecological systems, climate actions are implemented within governance arrangements that involve a variety of state and non-state institutions. Yet, little is known about these institutions, the structure of the multilevel and cross-sectoral ties among them, and how specifically these arrangements respond to the emergence of new collective action problems attributed to climate change adaptation,” describes Emmanuel. International climate policy debates emphasize on sub-national action and international networks as alternative means of realizing climate change mitigation and adaptation. “I therefore intend to employ a transboundary approach as a theoretical lens to study and explain climate politics and action.”

Faced with the increasing evidence of climate change impacts on aquatic ecosystems, FAO’s State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture calls for “the explicit consideration of climate stressors in fisheries and aquaculture management” as well as “more rapid changes in institutions and management systems.” Such shift to flexible and adaptive management approaches requires “transformative adaptation plans at the national, subnational and local levels […] to ease the transition of fisheries and aquaculture to a future resilient to climate change.”[3]

During his two-year AXA Research Fund fellowship at Lancaster University, U.K., Emmanuel will build on recent progress in climate modeling to quantify climate impacts on marine fisheries in the Western Indian Ocean. Using an integrated climate-biodiversity-fisheries-economic impact model, he will advance an innovative, interdisciplinary, methodological framework that considers linkages between socio-ecological fisheries systems in responding to climatic disturbances.

Mbaru (to the right) surveying transboundary fish stocks in the Kenyan Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

The critical gaps in the interplay between climate governance, adaptations and mitigation measures will be addressed by the research project through the lens of two evolving concepts, and emerging tools in natural resource management:

  • Interactive governance: emphasizing solving societal problems and creating societal opportunities through interactions between large numbers of governance actors and institutions, that are influenced, constrained, or enabled in their actions by structures.
  • Institutional bricolage: looking beyond the existing formal institutions, and instead expanding the institutional bracket to include modern and traditional, formal and informal institutions.

Through his research on the role of societal networks in adaptation and governance, Emmanuel intends to uncover complex interdependencies at the system level and identify shortcomings and requirements in the existing collaborative support management. Such revealing results can help enhance local adaptive capacities and resilience to climate change.

“By taking an in-depth look at the management and impacts of climate change on marine ecosystems, the AXA-supported project is working to provide important outputs, to be able to better understand the effects and to develop realistic fisheries management reforms within the Western Indian Ocean and beyond,” states Emmanuel.

Mbaru with Kenyan fishers targeting swordfish using longline fishing/research vessel in the Kenyan EEZ.

For more details on Emmanuel’s project, visit his Action page on the Ocean Decade website and his project page on the AXA Research Fund website.

For more details on all the winning projects, visit the AXA Postdoctoral Fellows page.



The Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO (IOC/UNESCO) promotes international cooperation in marine sciences to improve management of the ocean, coasts and marine resources. The IOC enables its 150 Member States to work together by coordinating programmes in capacity development, ocean observations and services, ocean science and tsunami warning. The work of the IOC contributes to the mission of UNESCO to promote the advancement of science and its applications to develop knowledge and capacity, key to economic and social progress, the basis of peace and sustainable development.

About the Ocean Decade:

Proclaimed in 2017 by the United Nations General Assembly, the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030) (‘the Ocean Decade’) seeks to stimulate ocean science and knowledge generation to reverse the decline of the state of the ocean system and catalyse new opportunities for sustainable development of this massive marine ecosystem. The vision of the Ocean Decade is ‘the science we need for the ocean we want’. The Ocean Decade provides a convening framework for scientists and stakeholders from diverse sectors to develop the scientific knowledge and the partnerships needed to accelerate and harness advances in ocean science to achieve a better understanding of the ocean system, and deliver science-based solutions to achieve the 2030 Agenda. The UN General Assembly mandated UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC/UNESCO) to coordinate the preparations and implementation of the Decade.

About the AXA Research Fund:

The AXA Research Fund was launched in 2008 to address the most important issues facing our planet. Its mission is to support scientific research in key areas related to risk and to help inform science-based decision-making in both the public and private sectors. Since its launch, the AXA Research Fund has committed a total of €250M to scientific funding and supported nearly 700 research projects in the areas of health, climate and environment, and socio-economics.


[2] Lam, V., Cheung, W., Reygondeau, G., Sumaila, U.R. 2016. Projected change in global fisheries revenues under climate change. Sci Rep 6, 32607.

[3] FAO. 2022. The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2022. Towards Blue Transformation. Rome, FAO.


The Science We Need for the Ocean We Want





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