Beyond Nemo: How Are Dory and Bruce Doing?

Traditional fishery management has been a lot like the movie Finding Nemo, where fishery managers focus on the life of a single species of fish. But, as we saw in the movie, single species of fish do not live alone; they depend on habitat like anemones, they encounter predators like Bruce, and there are human impacts such as removing fish from reefs. Our current management system often fails to consider the bigger picture: the habitats that ocean wildlife require at each stage of life, their roles as predator and prey (Bruce’s attitude on fish as ‘friends not food’ doesn’t really hold true in the ocean), the natural variations in populations in different places and at different times, such as sea turtle migrations, and of course the critical and varied impacts of humans—climate change, pollution, ocean acidification, cultural uses, and demands for food and recreation.

In short, we need an ecosystem approach—a modern, big-picture system that maintains the overall health of the ocean ecosystem by explicitly considering the above. Ensuring the long-term viability of fish populations and communities that depend on them requires a greater focus on the fitness and resilience of the ecosystems that support productive fisheries.

The good news is that U.S. fishery managers are recognizing the need to consider the whole ecosystem. A new report by the NOAA Science Advisory Board takes stock of the shift toward ecosystem-based fishery management across the nation. The report found that the use of ecosystem science in fishery management varies greatly by region, and the last several years have proven to be a time of experimentation in the ecosystem approach. We’re getting there, but we’re not there yet.

For example, the Pacific Fishery Management Council—one of eight regional bodies who assist the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in developing and executing plans for managing fishing under the Magnuson-Stevens Act—has developed a Fishery Ecosystem Plan for the west coast. It establishes a comprehensive foundation for considering the condition of the California Current Ecosystem in fishery planning and management, and sets an example for modernizing fisheries management across the globe.

Similarly, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council is embarking upon the development of a Fishery Ecosystem Plan for the Bering Sea. Previously, the council developed a Fishery Ecosystem Plan for the Aleutian Islands.

This new report is more important and timely than ever. The Ocean faces significant and numerous stressors, such as the impacts of global climate change, ocean acidification, invasive species, oil and shipping contaminants, and degraded water quality from land based pollution. The impacts of these stressors are becoming more apparent, demonstrating that a broader approach to management is required to ensure ocean ecosystems can support healthy fish populations and the people that depend on them into the future.

In addition to canvassing the existing state of ecosystem-based fishery management practices across the nation, the report also made recommendations for paving the way to an ecosystem approach:

  • Sharing is caring – There is much to be learned across Councils and regions. Opportunities to learn from others on science, analysis, and approach help everyone.
  • Invest in more than counting fish – Tools that help managers evaluate trade-offs, science that couples the social, economic, and ecologic, and next-generation ecosystem modeling are all needed.
  • Continue U.S. leadership – Export our growing success with ecosystem-based methods to other nations and to multi-national Regional Fishery Management Organizations.

An ecosystem approach isn’t easy. If it was, managers would have adopted it years ago. It is necessary though, and—as this report demonstrates—possible. There is no silver bullet or technological solution that can make it happen tomorrow, but there are proven ways to get there and it’s great to see NOAA stopping to check the map and compass.

We aren’t there yet, but we’re in the jet stream.

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