By Doreen Leggett
Fishery managers on the West Coast were already being updated about what was happening in the broader ecosystem, not just fish stocks. Then something made those reports very much in demand: the Blob.
The Blob, named after a 1950s horror movie creature, is a gargantuan swath of warm water created by climate shifts that caused a cascade of environmental horrors, devastating a $100-million cod fishery, decimating bird populations, killing whales and setting off toxic blooms.
“They asked, ‘When are we getting our next ecosystem report?’” remembers Sarah Gaichas, a research fisheries biologist with the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, a former colleague of those who provide those reports to the Pacific Council.
That focus on ecosystem-based management helped spur more ambitious efforts in New England to change fisheries management.
“Nobody in the world does what we are trying to do,” said John Pappalardo, CEO of the Alliance, a member of the New England Fishery Management Council and chair of its ecosystem-based fisheries management committee.
The committee is testing strategies for a more holistic management plan using a simulated Georges Bank ecosystem.
The ambitious plan requires an enormous amount of inputs to capture how an ecosystem might operate. Its goal is to solve problems long plaguing fisheries managers.
Instead of managing mortality on individual stocks, it would look at the species’ role in the wider ecosystem. For example, the plan would try to define not just the maximum sustainable yield for cod, but how much cod there would be if there was the maximum sustainable yield of dogfish, which eat cod.
After all, they’re connected.
The stated vision is to “harmonize what is known, unknown and unknowable about fishery resources and ecosystems with realities of fishing operations and the law … including trophic interactions between fished and unfished species, and impacts on non-fishery elements including habitats and regional communities.”
That’s a mouthful. But the premise has been talked about for years.
“I think anyone who has been regulated or involved in regulations has come to a moment when they realize that things in the ocean aren’t being accounted for in the decisions they’re making,” said Papplardo. “This is a slow-moving, audacious grand experiment that people should pay attention to because it may provide a chance for fishermen’s knowledge and experience to flow into management in a way that has never happened before.”
Fishermen have certainly spent time thinking about it.
“I think it makes a lot of sense,” said Captain Greg Connors, whose career spans both the heyday of cod and the current skate fishery.
The EBFM process is grappling with the problem of discards, fishermen having to throw fish overboard because harvesting is capped species by species. Connors agrees that this is a huge problem. His goal would be “100 percent retention” of the fish he catches.
One way to get there might be having permits based on the type of gear people use as opposed to the fish they catch. That may provide an easier way to put the ecosystem in balance, setting up a system that removes a set percent of the total biomass instead of having a certain amount of dogfish, a different amount of haddock, and yet another amount of hake.
“I would do it by how much protein you are looking at,” said Connors.
Bruce Peters, of Capeshores Charters, thinks it would be beneficial if managers could take into account factors outside the fishery, seals for instance.
“More badly needed research into seal populations and their effects or the possibilities of control is needed,” Peters said.
“These impacts are already happening, we just don’t know what they are so we aren’t accounting for them,” he said.
Good models could answer those questions, said Gaichas. But there has to be information. When it comes to marine mammals there is a dearth of data because they are protected, so researchers can’t dissect them, for example, and study their diets.
“A model is just a mathematical framework to organize … It is just a tool; it can only answer the questions you designed it for,” she said. “If you don’t have the diet composition of the predator, then you’re guessing.”
She doesn’t believe in guessing.
But this region is rich in data, she added. And new technologies around fatty acid and DNA sampling may help provide better answers.
A lot of that information also can and should come from fishermen.
“We learn a lot by talking to fishermen. If they say they have never seen something like this before, that is a signal we need to pay attention to,” she said.
The council is hoping that defining interactions between fish species will create healthier ecosystems, bringing greater stability and more flexibility with less complexity.
Small steps in this direction have been taken. For example, for years Bruce Peters has been advocating for greater protection for herring because tuna, which he depends on, in turn rely on the small forage fish.
When managers set catch limits for herring last year, they asked for information about how it might impact other species, such as birds and whales. In the models Gaichas ran, it seemed other species were ok with small changes in the harvest rate under many tested rules. But some tested rules showed detrimental effects, so managers didn’t use them.
“You can run 4,000 models, but you only have one ecosystem. Even though the answer isn’t real life it may give you some ideas,” Gaichas said.
She explained that an ecosystem-based model would not be able to predict an East Coast version of the Blob. But it could answer questions like, What species can handle high temperatures better? What will happen if a certain phytoplankton disappears?
It could also help fishermen be more profitable. Gaichas told a story of how the population of short-finned squid exploded in the mid-Atlantic recently. Fishermen could fill their boat in three hours and squid were being found in different places.
“If you could see the conditions approaching, you may be able to plan for that. Ecosystem based fishery management is not to just deal with those terrible blob things,” she said.
There has been some pushback on the ecosystem-based management effort. At a recent council meeting some industry members tried to stop the process, arguing there is no mandate to do it and it is costly. But the mission and goals were approved.
“Some people think it’s too ambitious, arrogant even, to think you can understand the environment enough to manage it,” Pappalardo said.
He disagrees, though he wonders how a model like this would deal with blue fin tuna that migrate huge distances, or a valuable forage fish like sand eels that isn’t managed presently.
Connors thinks it’s well worth pursuing, even if difficult.
“We know what isn’t working great,” he said. “And that is the system we have now.”