New England Fisheries

New England Inches Toward Improved Fisheries Management, But There’s a Catch

The highest peak of Cashes Ledge, Ammen Rock, rises to within 40 feet of the ocean surface and harbors the deepest and largest cold-water kelp forest on the Atlantic seaboard. Photo credit: Brian Skerry / New England Ocean Odyssey

This week the New England Fishery Management Council holds the first meeting of a committee aiming to revive efforts on Ecosystem-Based Fisheries Management, or EBFM. This is great news, but also greatly overdue.

For decades scientists have recognized that managing fishing one stock at a time without considering how those species interact in the ocean is a recipe for failure. Those scientists—including many well-known fisheries scientists here in our region—recommend moving to EBFM. An ecosystem approach allows managers to recognize interconnections, such as predator-prey relationships, and to respond to changes in the environment that affect fish. Fifteen years ago a federal advisory panel recommended a transition to EBFM, including the development of Fishery Ecosystem Plans by the country’s regional management councils. Two subsequent commissions, the Pew Oceans Commission (2003) and the US Oceans Commission (2004) reinforced this theme.

Elsewhere around the country fisheries managers are already embracing this approach, with most of the eight regional management councils taking steps toward EBFM. The North Pacific Council has a well-developed Fishery Ecosystem Plan for its Aleutian Island region, and a plan for the Bering Sea is underway. That council began establishing policies regulating the development of new fisheries for forage species in 1998. The Pacific Council is following suit with its Unmanaged Forage Fish Protection Initiative and similar regulations. Fishery Ecosystem Plans are also in place in the West Pacific and in the South Atlantic. And the Mid-Atlantic Council has outpaced New England with protections for forage species such as river herring and shad and by organizing foundational workshops on forage fish and climate change.

New England would clearly benefit from EBFM. This region holds the unfortunate distinction of having the most overfished species in the country. It will be very hard to rebuild depleted populations of fish such as cod if vital links in the food web are missing.

So, what’s the catch?

The New England Council has been slow to join its peers in embracing EBFM. In part, the “catch,” is that this region does not have a complete picture of the actual catch—the true total of just how many fish are being killed. This should include the landed catch (whether reported or not), the catch discarded at sea, catch that fisheries observers have seen as well as that on fishing trips without observers. All of these sources of fish mortality must be more completely known for robust scientific assessments of fish.

New England needs a Fishery Ecosystem Plan. Such a plan would heed carefully selected ecosystem indicators such as levels of primary productivity, recognize the special role of forage species, and take the ecosystem into account when setting catch levels.

New England must also wake up to the need for habitat protection, a vital component of EBFM.  Seafloor habitat provides shelter for eggs and baby fish, food for juvenile and adult fish and safe places for fish to spawn. In short, habitat is where fish make more fish. And what New England needs is more fish.

New Director, new direction?

There are signs of hope at the hands of the council’s new executive director. When Thomas Nies took over as the New England Council’s Executive Director just a year ago, he said that transitioning to EBFM would be one of his priorities in his new leadership role – something the Council had twice before set as a priority without making any progress on the water.

Nies rose to executive director after serving more than a decade as the council’s lead on groundfish (cod, haddock and various flounder), so it may come as no surprise that his attention turned quickly to the ecosystem. Even with dedicated efforts to rebuild stocks, recovery has been frustratingly elusive for some important groundfish stocks. It is hard to escape the conclusion that managing blind to the ecosystem is at least part of the problem.

The council has substantial scientific resources to draw on as it moves down the path to EBFM.  NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center is home to internationally known ecosystem scientists, including some who literally wrote the book on the topic.

However, the science won’t produce the benefits it should without leadership from the council and NOAA’s regional office. These managers need to chart a course for evaluating best practices on EBFM and developing a stakeholder process to identify community goals for the marine ecosystems of the Northeast.


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