Protecting Ocean Ecosystems

Anglers Explore the ‘Big Picture’ on Fishing

Nearly a hundred sports fishermen from southern New England joined scientists and state and federal officials Tuesday for a deep dive into what’s known as ecosystem-based fisheries management, or EBFM, during the Southern New England Recreational Fishing Symposium. The event was billed as building a path to “an abundant future of recreational fishing,” and how EBFM can help make that happen.

“Simply put, this symposium is about ecosystem management to create more fish for everyone,” said Rich Hittinger, Vice President of the Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers Foundation, which cosponsored the symposium along with The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Coastal Institute at the Univ. of Rhode Island.

Instead of tracking the condition of just one fish species at a time, as current management largely does, EBFM also accounts for how those fish interact in the water and respond to changes in the ocean environment.

Anglers at the symposium said the current “single-species” system of fishery management has some serious shortcomings. One favorite sport fish, the striped bass, is in decline and the population of another, cod, has collapsed altogether. Fishermen are also concerned about what’s happening to the prey fish those and other species need in order to thrive. Anglers spoke about seeing industrial scale trawls scoop up key forage species such as herring and menhaden.

Fishing folks spend a lot of time on the water, and many said they’ve noticed changes in the types and abundance of fish as the region’s waters have warmed over the years. More southerly species such as black sea bass have become more abundant, and some invasive species are showing up. Divers have even caught a juvenile lionfish, a tropical invasive species, in Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay.

Participants identified the top challenges to healthy oceans: fishing pressure, local shortages of prey species, habitat loss, and climate change. That list, as daunting as it is, became the starting point for a promising conversation about what can be done to meet these challenges with an ecosystem-based approach.

The anglers said they want to see catch limits on forage fish such as menhaden and herring that will leave plenty in the water for predators to eat. They want to see fish spawning areas protected, and they want to help decision makers identify and safeguard the special habitat areas that fish need to thrive. Conservative catch limits and healthy habitat could also act as a buffer against environmental changes likely to come with warming waters.

One other thing these recreational fishermen want is to have their voices heard. By the end of the symposium it was clear that the conversation about EBFM was not over—it will continue in fishery management councils and state offices as these women and men share their concerns and ideas about New England’s ocean ecosystems. That means the “ecosystem” of players in the region’s fishery management might have just gotten a much needed boost.


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