Tackling Big Issues in Symposium Breakout Sessions

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Tackling Big Issues in Symposium Breakout Sessions

The breakout sessions at the VASG Symposium addressed big questions, from how to improve oyster management to finding ways to plan for changing sea levels.

©Julia Robins/VASG

Participants from Freitag’s session record important components of various activities involved in oyster management. ©Julia Robins/VASG

By VASG Staff

Big problems may be intimidating, but breaking them into smaller, focused issues can help address them effectively. The breakout sessions at the Virginia Sea Grant (VASG) Project Participants’ Symposium on January 29 addressed big questions, from how to improve oyster management to finding ways to help coastal businesses and owners of other waterfront infrastructure plan for changing sea levels.

Amy Freitag, a VASG and NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office postdoctoral fellow, led a session focused on ecosystem-based fisheries management for oysters.

“The overall purpose was to test my thinking on how to take a smaller approach to ecosystem-based fisheries management—to actually grab something tangible and run with it,” she says.

The ecosystem-based management approach attempts to take into account the full array of interactions within an ecosystem, rather than considering single issues, species, or ecosystem features in isolation. That’s a hard goal to tackle, given the broad range of people, interests, and activities involved in oyster management. But Freitag is anything but discouraged.

In the session, she identified four main activities involved in oyster management—restoration, sanctuary, aquaculture, and wild harvest—and then asked participants to record what they thought were the most important and relevant outcomes, conditions, or characteristics for each activity.

“I had a suspicion that participants would be using different terms for the same concepts, or prioritizing things differently,” says Freitag. “I wanted to make sure that we had everything written out, so that we could collectively come to an agreement of shared interests, of what is important.”

The participants then came up with a new list—a master list that emerged from all four activity areas and identified stakeholders’ needs and expectations. Among them:  “disease resistance” and “cultural appreciation.”

This master list was, for Freitag, “the most tangible outcome” from the session. She plans to use it to develop a survey that she will send to broader oyster stakeholder communities to add any additional factors and to prioritize what they think is most important.

She wants survey participants to develop an oyster “check-up”—a list of ten things that managers can use to quickly assess the status of oysters, decide what issues may need management attention, and determine which stakeholders are most affected.

Breakout sessions like Freitag’s “are where innovation comes from,” says Troy Hartley, VASG director; they “produce novel solutions to challenging coastal and marine resource issues.”

“I think we had a really good discussion,” says Freitag. “It was very helpful for me to move forward.”

In a breakout session in another room, marina owners talked about their businesses and the challenges presented by sea level rise. All three of the marina presenters agreed that long-term planning is difficult. Given current market conditions, their primary business planning typically extends one or two years, which means that issues with significant impacts beyond two years are given little to no attention.

“What rose to the surface is how interconnected the issues are for these working waterfront businesses,” says Michelle Covi, VASG extension at Old Dominion University. Covi co-organized the session with Tom Murray and Anne Smith, Virginia Institute of Marine Science extension staff affiliated with VASG.

“It became obvious that you can’t talk about storms without considering economic development issues,” she says. That means the strategy for communicating about such subjects probably requires “connecting long-term things like sea level rise to immediate needs and issues.”

Last year, the symposium hosted breakout sessions on harmful algal blooms and adapting an intact community for sea level resiliency. Working sessions like these are key to the VASG mission.

“Virginia Sea Grant brings together a wide breadth of staff, students, researchers, and advisors to update each other on activities, listen to each other, and discuss future directions,” says Hartley. “The symposium is one of the foremost opportunities for this kind of integration.”