August 12, 2021
Preserving Fishing Opportunities While Protecting the Ocean Ecosystem
Earlier this year, President Biden issued Executive Order 14008, Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad. Importantly, the Order includes provisions to help protect our ocean ecosystems and future fishing opportunities. By proposing new or strengthening existing management and conservation measures, the Order aims to make fisheries and protected resources more resilient to climate change. In response, the Secretary of Commerce solicited public input, and Wild Oceans contributed a list of written recommendations.
We’ve always looked at ocean ecosystem health from the perspective of both predator and prey, and we have a long track record of advocating for holistic, ecosystem-based solutions to manage fisheries. Our goal has always been to build a more healthy and resilient ocean. In order to go further, we need to invest in the fisheries and ecosystem science that supports ecosystem-based fishery management and give the managers the tools they need to act with precaution in the face of uncertainty.
Ecosystem-based fisheries management (EBFM) provides us with the tools to build healthy fish stocks and strong fishing communities in a changing future. That is why we support investing in scientific research that helps us understand how our oceans are changing, what’s at risk, and how we can respond to these changes – research that makes EBFM actionable.
EBFM is widely accepted as the framework for achieving sustainability in fisheries, both in terms of ecological and human well-being. Building resiliency by discovering solutions to climate effects requires an understanding of ecosystem structure and function and how human actions might impact the changing ecosystem. We must ensure that fishing activity will not undermine ecosystem health.
For example, as fish stocks shift northward, new fishing opportunities will arise for forage species such as squid, sardine, herring, mackerels or anchovy. We must first understand the impact of these stock shifts on predators that depend on this prey. Only then can we evaluate harvest strategies to preserve biodiversity and ecological relationships.
Our present single-species management approach does not account for impacts on other species and trade-offs within the broader food web. This leaves us with enormous ecological uncertainties and inevitable risks. In order to build resilient fisheries in a changing ocean, we must move towards EBFM.
At the same time, we support more precautionary management that includes expanding opportunities to protect habitat and prey. Conserving fish at the ecosystem level requires a change in some of our most basic fishery management concepts. In order to prevent ecosystem overfishing – that is, fishing to a degree that jeopardizes the integrity of marine communities –we must move away from the goal of maximizing yields to fisheries toward ecologically sustainable yields. To do that, we need to be more forthright about how we are impacting the food web and then overtly consider these impacts within our conservation and management strategies.
We can create more resilient populations by protecting breeding, spawning, nursery and feeding grounds for marine life. NOAA Fisheries has a history of restricting gear in areas critical to the life history of marine fish and protected species. We must commit to maintaining these protections and put the resource ahead of short-term economic gains.
The Spring Gulf of Mexico Gear Restricted Area protected Atlantic bluefin tuna during the peak of spawning season by prohibiting longline activity in an area with a relatively high bluefin interaction rate from April 1 through May 31. Regrettably in 2020, NOAA Fisheries allowed longlines to return to this sensitive spawning ground, but the agency is now reconsidering that decision.
The Pacific Loggerhead Conservation Area (PLCA) is more dynamic. The PLCA closure is triggered by an environmental variable consistent with loggerhead sea turtle abundance. Specifically, drift gillnet fishing is prohibited in the PLCA from June 1 to August 31 when El Nino conditions are occurring or forecast to occur off Southern California.
We now have the ability to use ocean modeling to identify, designate and protect critical habitat based not only on geography, but on oceanographic features. Using features such as temperature, currents or forage availability to designate habitat can help protect pelagic habitat as it shifts in space with changing ocean conditions.
The future of our oceans depends on prioritizing research to develop both static and dynamic area-based management with a focus on protecting important habitat – where animals reproduce, grow and forage – and areas with high catch of non-target, unmarketable or protected species.
These steps to build more resilient fisheries are consistent with another component of the Executive Order, “the goal of conserving 30 percent of our lands and waters by 2030.” While there is broad support for the intent behind this goal to preserve our nation’s rich biodiversity, there are many diverse views on the best ways to achieve it. We see an opportunity to marry the goal of making fisheries and protected resources more resilient to climate change with the goal of protecting 30 percent of our national waters. For example, by focusing on protecting essential fish habitat from fishing and non-fishing impacts, such as energy exploration, offshore wind development, sand mining, offshore aquaculture, dredging and coastal development, we can achieve both goals.