People and ecosystems

Understanding of the links between coral reef ecosystems, the goods and services they provide to people, and the wellbeing of human societies.


Ecosystem dynamics: past, present and future

Examining the multi-scale dynamics of reefs, from population dynamics to macroevolution


Responding to a changing world

Advancing the fundamental understanding of the key processes underpinning reef resilience.

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Coral Reef Studies

ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
James Cook University Townsville
Queensland 4811 Australia

Phone: 61 7 4781 4000
Email: info@coralcoe.org.au

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Michele Barnes

Michele Barnes

Senior Research Fellow

ARC DECRA Fellow (2019-2022)
Australian Institute of Policy & Science QLD Tall Poppy (2020)
U.S. NSF Postdoctoral Research Fellow (2015 - 2018)

PhD Natural Resources & Environmental Management, University of Hawaii • Ocean Policy Graduate Certificate, University of Hawaii • B.A. Political Science, University of Hawaii

Barnes Lab: Social Dynamics and the Environment
SEA-LINK: Social-Ecological Adaptation and Linkages

James Cook University

+61 (0)7 4781 6328


I am an environmental social scientist whose work draws on theories and methods from sociology and economics to contribute a better understanding of the linkages between people and nature that underpin complex environmental problems. I have specialized expertise in social network science, and I apply this expertise to sustainability challenges facing coral reefs and other social-ecological systems, while also making key disciplinary contributions.

I obtained my PhD in Natural Resources and Environmental Management from the University of Hawaii in 2015. Throughout my tenure in Hawaii, I held adjunct faculty appointments at the University of Hawaii and Hawaii Pacific University, where I developed and taught courses on the human dimensions of marine systems and quantitative social science methods. I also worked as a research specialist in the Socioeconomics and Planning Group at NOAA’s Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center in Honolulu, HI.

In 2015, I was awarded a U.S. National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowship to develop and apply an integrative network modelling framework to capture complex linkages in coral reef social-ecological systems (2015 – 2018; ~AUD $208,500). I am now a Senior Research Fellow in the People and Ecosystems Group at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies here at James Cook University. In 2018 I was awarded an early career research fellowship (DECRA) from the Australian Research Council to study how social networks and power shape adaptive and transformative responses to climate change (2019 – 2022; $370,000).

I currently serve on the board of the Australian Network for Social Network Analysis Association and am a member of the Organizing Committee for the International Network for Social Network Analysis Sunbelt Meeting to be held in Australia in 2022. I am also a member of the Scientific Reference Group for the Great Sandy Marine Park Re-Zoning Plan being developed by the Queensland Department of Environment and Science. I co-founded the Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies in 2020 and currently serve as co-chair of this committee. I am also currently an editor of Ecology and Society and have served as a guest editor for Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Barnes Lab: Social Dynamics and the Environment

My research program draws heavily on sociology, economics, and social-ecological systems theory to analyze social dynamics in environmental systems and how they relate to the sustainable use and governance of environmental resources. I have specialized expertise in social network science, and my lab and I work on highly interdisciplinary projects that draw on this expertise to elucidate how complex interactions between people and ecosystems can enable or inhibit sustainability outcomes. We also contribute to advancing network theory and methods. The bulk of our work focuses on marine and coastal systems – particularly fisheries, but we have also worked on questions related to sustainable agriculture, illegal hunting, and large-scale environmental governance. In this context, we work to uncover actionable insights that can contribute toward a sustainable future for both people and ecosystems through the use of network analysis, quantitative modeling, experiments, economic valuation, and qualitative methods, and by working closely with a range of other social scientists, economists, ecologists, biologists, mathematicians, policymakers, and conservation and development practitioners.

Our current research focuses on three broad themes:

(1) Social networks, social capital, and environmental outcomes: Understanding how social dynamics drive outcomes in environmental systems is critical to advancing global sustainability. To meet this challenge, this body of work focuses on basic theories of social organization and how different patterns of social structure and social capital drive outcomes in environmental systems. Investigations into social organization focus on different types of social networks at both small and large scales, include inquires related to network formation and function, and often focus on issues of sociocultural diversity. We investigate social, ecological, and economic outcomes at both the micro and macro level. Past projects have focused on cooperation and collaboration, ethnic diversity, collective action, fisher profitability, and shark bycatch. This work has been supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), NOAA’s Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, the Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research, and the ARC CoE for Coral Reef Studies, and has appeared in journals such as Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Social Networks, Ecology and Society, Ecological Economics, and Environmental Management. More recent work in this area focuses on social influence and diffusion (see our recent paper in Biological Conservation), and the role of social capital and social networks in supporting resilience (see our recent papers in Ecology and Society, Nature Climate Change, and One Earth).

(2) Social-ecological linkages and feedbacks: This body of work extends my first research theme to explicitly account for the linkages and feedbacks between social and ecological structures. In this era of unprecedented anthropogenic stress on natural capital essential for supporting human wellbeing, we must have a strong understanding of the linkages and feedbacks between people and nature. This challenge is particularly relevant for marine ecosystems such as coral reefs which continue to decline globally, threatening biodiversity and the basic life supporting services they provide to humanity (see our recent publication in Nature). In an effort toward meeting this challenge, I am involved in ongoing research initially funded by NSF and the ARC CoE for Coral Reef Studies that advances a novel interdisciplinary network modeling framework to assess how social-ecological interdependencies mediate outcomes in social-ecological systems. This project involves both theoretical and comparative empirical work, and involves a diverse array of collaborators from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, the Stockholm Resilience Center, CSIRO, University of Melbourne, University of Hawaii, Lancaster University, Exeter University, Conservation International, and the Wildlife Conservation Society. Empirical work from this project, covered by Forbes, provides evidence that social-ecological alignment – in this case, cooperative communication among fishers targeting the same fish species – can support improved reef ecosystem conditions.

(3) Adaptation, transformation, and resilience: Confronting the profound social, environmental, and climatic changes that threaten biodiversity and human welfare necessitates the capacity of people, communities, and institutions to adapt and potentially transform in order to secure a sustainable future. In this research theme, we draw on multiple strands of research related to adaptation, transformation, and resilience in asking critical questions such as: What factors drive or underpin human responses to environmental change (and in what context)? When can a response or action be considered transformative as opposed to adaptive? How are human responses to change underpinned by social-ecological feedbacks, and how can they potentially alter these feedbacks? What role does power play in shaping responses to change, and what does this mean for resilience (and for whom)? Existing work in this theme attempts to contribute theoretical and conceptual clarity on the social dimensions of resilience in coupled human-natural systems (One Earth), the factors that underpin adaptive capacity (Nature Climate Change), and how social and ecological structures form the foundation for adaptation and transformation (Ecology & Society). Ongoing empirical work in this theme funded by the Australian Research Council builds on my previous two themes by drawing on dynamic social-ecological data to examine how social networks, social-ecological linkages, and power shape adaptive responses to climate change at multiple scales (i.e., individual-level, household-level, governance system-level).

In a recent paper, we used novel multilevel, social-ecological network modelling to examine how different domains of adaptive capacity—assets, flexibility, (social) organization, learning, socio-cognitive constructs, and agency—are related to adaptive and transformative actions in response to climate change impacts. We found that social ties (organization), perceived power (agency), and connections to the marine environment (learning) help and hinder people as they navigate climate change. Check out our video abstract below, our Behind the Paper blog, or read the full paper here in Nature Climate Change.

Lab Group:

Previous Lab Members:


Selected Publications

Google Scholar

Barnes, M.L., Wang, P., Cinner, J.E., Graham, N.A.J., Guerrero, A.M., Jasny, L., Lau, J., Sutcliffe, S.R., and J. Zamborain-Mason. Social determinants of adaptive and transformative responses to climate change. (2020) Nature Climate Change.

Guerrero, A.M., Barnes, M.L., Bodin, Ö, Chadès, I., Davis, K.J., Iftekhar, M.S., Morgans, C. and K.A. Wilson. Key considerations in the application of social network research for environmental decision making. (2020) Conservation Biology 34(3), 733-742.

Cinner, J.E., Lau, J., Bauman, A.G., Feary, D.A., Januchowski-Hartley, F.A., Rojas, C.A., Barnes, M.L., Bergseth, B.J., Shum, E., Lahari, R., Ben, J, and N.A.J. Graham. Sixteen years of social and ecological dynamics reveal challenges and opportunities for adaptive management in sustaining the commons. (2019) Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 116(52) 26474-26483.

Barnes, M.L., Bodin, Ö, McClanahan, T.R., Kittinger, J.N., Hoey, A.S., Gaoue, O.G., and N.A.J. Graham. Social-ecological alignment and ecological conditions in coral reefs. (2019) Nature Communications 10(1), 2039.

Cinner, J.E. and M.L. Barnes. Social dimensions of resilience in social-ecological systems. One Earth 1(1), 51-56.

Bodin, Ö., Alexander, S., Baggio, J., Barnes, M.L., Berardo, R., Cumming, G., Dee, L., Fischer, M., Fischer, A., Garcia, M.M., Guerrero, A., Hileman, J., Ingold, K., Matous, P., Morrison, T., Nohrstedt, D., Pittman, J., Robins, G., and J. Sayles. Improving network approaches to the study of complex social-ecological interdependencies. (2019) Nature Sustainability 2(7), 551-559.

Barnes, M.L., Mbaru, E. and N. Muthiga. Information access and knowledge exchange in co-managed coral reef fisheries. (2019) Biological Conservation 238, 108-198. Invited manuscript for special issue “Coral Reef Conservation.”

Cinner, J.E., Adger, N., Allison, E., Barnes, M.L., Brown, K., Cohen, P., Gelcich, S., Hicks, C., Hughes, T., Lau, J., Marshall, N, and T. Morrison. Building adaptive capacity in tropical coastal communities. (2018) Nature Climate Change 8, 117–123.

Barnes, M.L., Bodin, Ö., Guerrero, A. M., McAllister, R. J., Alexander, S.M., & Robins, G. The social structural foundations of adaptation and transformation in social-ecological systems. (2017). Ecology & Society 22(4):16. Invited manuscript for special issue “Beyond Social-Ecological Traps.”

Hughes T.P., Barnes, M.L., Bellwood, D.R., Cinner, J.E., Cumming, G.S., Jackson, J.B.C., Kleypas, J., van de Leemput, I., Lough, J., Morrison, T.H., Palumbi, S.R., van Nes E.H., & Scheffer, M. (2017). Coral reefs in the Anthropocence. Nature 546(7656), 82-90.

Bodin, Ö., Barnes, M.L., McAllister, R.R.J., Rocha, J.C., and Guerrero, A.M. (2017). Social-ecological network approaches in interdisciplinary research: A response to Bohan et al. and Dee et al. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 32(8): 547-549.

Barnes, M.L., Arita, S., Kalberg, K., & Leung, P. (2017). When does it pay to cooperate? Strategic information sharing in the harvest of common-pool fishery resources. Ecological Economics, 131, 1-11.

Mbaru, E. & Barnes, M.L. (2017). Key players in conservation diffusion: Using social network analysis to identify critical injection points. Biological Conservation, 210, 222-232.

Barnes, M. L., Lynham, J., Kalberg, K., & Leung, P. (2016). Social networks and environmental outcomesProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113, 6466-6471.

Barnes, M., Kalberg, K., Pan, M., & Leung, P. (2016). When is brokerage negatively associated with economic benefits? Ethnic diversity, competition, and common-pool resourcesSocial Networks45, 55-65.

Grafeld, S. L., Oleson, K. L., Barnes, M., C., Peng, Chan, C., & Weijerman, M. (2016). Divers’ Willingness to Pay for Improved Coral Reef Conditions in Guam: An Untapped Source of Funding for Management and Conservation? Ecological Economics 128, 202-213.

Lewison, R., Hobday, A. J., Maxwell, S., Hazen, E., Hartog, J. R., Dunn, D. C., Briscoe, D., Fosette, S., O’Keefe, C., Barnes, M., … & Abecassis, M. (2015). Dynamic ocean management: identifying the critical ingredients of dynamic approaches to ocean resource management. BioScience65(5), 486-498.

Barnes, M., Oleson, K. L., Brander, L. M., Zafindrasilivonona, B., Oliver, T. A., & van Beukering, P. (2015). Social capital as an ecosystem service: Evidence from a locally managed marine areaEcosystem Services,16, 283-293.

Oleson, K. L., Barnes, M., Brander, L. M., Oliver, T. A., Van Beek, I., Zafindrasilivonona, B., & Van Beukering, P. (2015). Cultural bequest values for ecosystem service flows among indigenous fishers: A discrete choice experiment validated with mixed methodsEcological Economics114, 104-116.

Barnes, M., Gray, S. A., Arita, S., Lynham, J., & Leung, P. (2015). What determines social capital in a social–ecological system? Insights from a network perspectiveEnvironmental Management55(2), 392-410.

Barnes, M., Oleson, K. L., & Zafindrasilivonona, B. (2013). The total economic value of small-scale fisheries with a characterization of post-landing trends: An application in Madagascar with global relevanceFisheries Research147, 175-185.

Cisneros-Montemayor, A. M., Barnes, M., Al-Abdulrazzak, D., Navarro-Holm, E., & Sumaila, U. R. (2013). Global economic value of shark ecotourism: implications for conservation. Oryx47(03), 381-388.

Barnes, M., Arita, S., Allen, S. D., Gray, S. A., & Leung, P. (2013). The influence of ethnic diversity on social network structure in a common-pool resource system: implications for collaborative managementEcology and Society18(1), 23.


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Coral Reef Studies

ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
James Cook University Townsville
Queensland 4811 Australia

Phone: 61 7 4781 4000
Email: info@coralcoe.org.au