By John Pappalardo
Bear with me – forgive me might be the better way to put it – as I invoke yet one more acronym that has become increasingly important as we try to work our way through the maze known as United States fisheries management, keep our fleet on the water, and respond to big changes like global warming:
Ecosystem-Based Fisheries Management.
The idea is as it sounds, to think broadly about our relationship to the whole system and habitat that is the amazing ocean, tailor our work and impact with that big picture in mind.
Easier said than done – and it’s not even that easy to say!
For generations, the traditional way we have regulated fisheries is to think species by species. We try to figure out how much effort we can focus on one fish — cod, scallop, lobster, monkfish, hake, flounder, the list is as long as your arm – and set up individual rules and quotas accordingly. Scientists conduct research on a stock, offer estimates of what is “sustainable,” and we can then try to harvest what makes sense with an eye to the future.
Some people use an analogy from the farming world and see this approach as akin to silos, self-contained, separate, side by side.
In many ways this makes logistical, scientific sense. But the unfortunate truth is that in many ways this narrow approach may no longer be sufficient to maintain sustainable fisheries.
Meanwhile, the playfield – in this case the Atlantic Ocean – is not just interrelated, meaning the antithesis of silos, but changing. In the most static of times the Atlantic remains perhaps the most complicated, multi-dimensional entity on the planet, and now that complexity is compounded by global climate shifts that cannot be denied.
This month the latest potential shocker emerged, a serious study suggesting that the Atlantic’s vital currents coursing north and south, including the Gulf Stream, could be shutting down due to rising temperatures throughout. Still a theory, data-driven but not proven, if true this could completely alter the ocean habitat we know, perhaps disastrously.
I’m not crying wolf here, but it makes no sense to continue with business as usual when the “business” isn’t working very well, and the “usual” no longer exists.
EBFM looks like a better way to respond to all of this.
The idea is to develop rules and tools that can incorporate big shifts in ocean patterns, that acknowledge how fish stocks fit into an interconnected pattern, that accept the fact that how we treat one species affects not just its reproduction but other fish and the habitat as a whole.
We know all this is true, but what we don’t know yet is how to account for it with regulations that are fair, defensible, enforceable, and accomplish our big-picture goals. Arriving at a simpler yet more dynamic management plan is chief among them.
Here’s how the feds (in language getting close to what we might call “federalese”) describe the idea:
“… (A) new approach that involves all species and fisheries in a specific area, recognizes the energetic limits of the system, takes into account the trophic relationships among species, allows for greater adaptability to variability and change, and addresses multifaceted goals and objectives.”
I’ve been named chair of the New England Fisheries Council’s EBFM committee; the meetings can get tedious, but this is work I seriously believe in and think could become a crucial national model. New England is a few steps ahead of the rest of the country in exploring the concept; come fall, COVID depending, there may be a chance to gather people from around the country to build coalitions and try to get ahead of a big wave.
If there is one community most sensitive to changes in the marine environment, who has to adapt to those changes or face disastrous consequences, it is fishermen. Time now for those who manage the fishery to use their example, move beyond silos and boxes, and face the future.