How Are Fishery Managers Using Climate Data?

Climate information could help fisheries see bigger picture

Written By
Guest Blogger

This blog was written by Michele Conrad, advisor to Ocean Conservancy on achieving priority fish conservation and ecosystem goals on the West Coast. As a former state ocean policy manager, Michele represented the State of Washington on the Pacific Fishery Management Council for 15 years before starting her own consultancy. She is passionate about helping fisheries manage their way through climate change and furthering ocean conservation efforts.

Ever see something unusual or out of context and it takes a moment to register what exactly you’re seeing? 

When our eyes see an image, our brain interprets it by searching an internal database of visual references—a process that usually happens within a fraction of a second. However, new research shows that when it’s harder to recognize an object, our perception of that object is shaped by what we know and our personal experience. This insight into how knowledge and experience affect perception could not be truer when it comes to fishery management, including how we estimate the status of fish populations.

For decades, scientists have estimated how many fish are in the ocean and fishery managers have used those estimates to determine how many fish can be sustainably caught. NOAA Fisheries’ surveys gather biological and environmental data, including the climate, ecosystem and fish data that can be used to form “images” for fishery management—they are our eyes in the ocean. These surveys form a strong scientific foundation for fishery management decisions.

Scientists use the data to create and interpret the “images,” which are like puzzles, and as they try to find the pieces that fit, the images often remain blurry. Stakeholders—fishermen, processors, anglers and conservationists—and fishery managers all have different perceptions of those images based on their individual knowledge and personal experiences.

Even in the best conditions, estimating the number of fish in the ocean is like counting birds in the forest … except we can’t readily see or hear the fish. Not only is that “forest” more than 60 million square miles in size, if we’re talking about the Pacific Ocean, but ocean ecosystems are also complicated and dynamic, and environmental factors are intertwined and influence each other. To add to the complexity, climate change is causing oceanographic changes to occur more rapidly, more frequently and to greater extremes. 

In short, climate information can be an important part of the larger picture of how fish populations are doing.

But are fishery managers using that information?

In at least one region, the answer is “yes.” The Pacific Fishery Management Council’s (PFMC) Ecosystem and Climate Information Initiative (aka Initiative 2.1 described here), which they adopted in September 2022, is a collaboration among scientists, fishery managers and stakeholders to essentially create and interpret the “image” of how fish are doing along the West Coast. It is a proactive step to preparing Pacific fisheries for climate disruptions.

Through the initiative, scientists will study how different climate and ecosystem factors could impact specific fish stocks. By identifying those relationships and understanding how climate change has already affected fisheries in other regions, managers will be better prepared for shifting environmental conditions. Doing this will tell us there can be more fishing when conditions are favorable and provide early warning systems to tell us when things are looking bad so we can pull back. Using climate information also means we better understand fishing’s relationship with vulnerable habitats and ocean food webs, as well as changing pressures that fishing communities are facing.  In other words, by taking these steps, the Pacific Council will improve their perception of the status of fish stocks in the ocean, which will lead to better, climate-informed fishery management decisions that can help avert a fishery disaster.

Some have worried that including climate information will make the tricky task of estimating fish in the ocean even more challenging (i.e., that it will make a blurry image even worse). And trying to enhance the image by expanding research surveys is difficult and expensive. But as the new study on the human visual pathway concluded, the key to improving our understanding (our perception) is to expand what we know and learn from our experiences.

So, instead of ignoring climate information or just focusing on collecting more data, the PFMC will be using the environmental data NOAA already gathers in combination with the information from our collective experiences (i.e., the fisheries we know have been affected by climate change) to improve our understanding of fish populations. This information can also help us manage the populations sustainably even as ocean conditions shift due to climate change. It’s definitely a step in the right direction towards more resilient fisheries.

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