The Conditions are Right for Ecosystem-Based Fisheries Management

A successful fishing trip depends on more than just the number of fish in the sea. It is dependent upon a multitude of complicating factors including the weather conditions, your ability to catch fish and even lack of engine problems to name a few.

Like a fishing trip, sustainable management of our fisheries requires more than just counting the number of fish in the sea. A sustainable catch level requires an understanding of the environment they live in. Fish need suitable habitat to live, other fish to eat, and will eventually become prey for bigger fish, including humans. Furthermore, fish live in a dynamic, changing ocean. When fisheries managers consider these ‘complicating’ factors in the setting of sustainable catch levels, the process is called ecosystem-based fisheries management.

Why Do We Need It?

The need for ecosystem-based fisheries management is clear. Ignoring the impacts from the broader ecosystem prevents us from managing our stocks to their maximum potential. This means we’re overfishing our stocks when conditions are wrong, losing fishing opportunities when conditions are right and ignoring the impacts of fishing on other species that depend on them.

Yet implementing ecosystem-based fisheries management remains a challenge, as it poses a shift in the way we currently think about and manage our fish stocks.

Calls to implement ecosystem-based fisheries management date back to 1873 in Spencer Baird’s report to Congress on the decline of fisheries in New England fisheries on behalf of the U.S. Fish Commission.  In his report, he identified five potential causes for the declines.  Only one of the reasons was attributed to overfishing. The remaining four had to do with the broader ecosystem.

The thought of incorporating ecosystem properties, which can be seen as complex and unpredictable, into fisheries management that is equally complex and unpredictable, may seem like a problem that is too big to solve. As a result ecosystem based fisheries management has been perceived as the ‘next generation’ of management for nearly 150 years. Given our modern understanding of how the environment affects our fish stocks, we can no longer afford to ignore this knowledge in management. But, there’s good news:

We Can Do It!

A recent paper titled “Myths That Continue to Impede Progress in Ecosystem Based Fisheries Management” demonstrates that we now have both the science and governance structures in place to implement ecosystem-based fisheries management on a broad scale.

The Science:

Our scientific understanding of how the environment affects fish stocks has never been better. We now have computer models that simulate everything from bacteria to whales. However, ecosystem-based fisheries management doesn’t need to be complex.

Ecosystem properties are already being used to inform sustainable quotas and the application of ecosystem information can, in practice, be much simpler than the methods we currently use to assess a single stock.  If enacted properly, ecosystem-based management has the potential to decrease the amount of resources needed to assess all of the stocks in the USA, given its ability to consider multiple species at the same time.

The Management:

Like the science, NOAA’s authority to include ecosystem factors in managing its fisheries has never been clearer. There are over 90 legislative actions giving NOAA this authority and five of the eight fisheries councils have implemented ecosystem initiatives within their existing governance framework. While the perfect governance structure is still evolving, there is clearly plenty of space to implement ecosystem-based fisheries management in the current management frameworks and should not be delayed.

Given all of the progress made in both the science and governance of ecosystem-based fisheries management, the ‘next generation’ of fisheries management has finally arrived.  Implementation on a national scale will not be easy, or straightforward, and there will be errors made along the way.

However, like a good fishing trip, the conditions are right for success.

For more information on the ecosystem based fisheries management see:

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