Transient social-ecological stability: the effects of invasive species and ecosystem restoration on nutrient management compromise in Lake Erie.
Together, lake ecosystems and local human activity form complex social-ecological systems (SESs) characterized by feedback loops and discontinuous change. Researchers in diverse fields have suggested that complex systems do not have single stable equilibria in the long term because of inevitable perturbation. During this study, we sought to address the general question of whether or not stable social-ecological equilibria exist in highly stressed and managed lacustrine systems. Using an integrated human-biophysical model, we investigated the impacts of a species invasion and ecosystem restoration on SES equilibrium, defined here as a compromise in phosphorus management among opposing stakeholders, in western Lake Erie. Our integrated model is composed of a calibrated ecological submodel representing Sandusky Bay, and a phosphorus management submodel that reflects the societal benefits and costs of phosphorus regulation. These two submodels together form a dynamic feedback loop that includes freshwater ecology, ecosystem services, and phosphorus management. We found that the invasion of dreissenid mussels decreased ecosystem resistance to eutrophication, necessitating increased phosphorus management to preserve ecosystem services and thus creating the potential for a shift in social-ecological equilibrium. Additionally, our results suggest that net benefits in the region following the invasion of dreissenids may never again reach the pre-invasion level if on-site phosphorus control is the sole management lever. Further demonstrating transient system stability, large-scale wetland restoration shifted points of management compromise to states characterized by less on-site phosphorus management and higher environmental quality, resulting in a significant increase in net benefits in the region. We conclude that lacustrine SESs are open and dynamic, and we recommend that future models of these systems emphasize site-specific perturbation over equilibrium, thereby aiding the development of management plans for building system resistance to undesirable change that are both flexible and sustainable in an unknowable future.