Ecosystem-Based Fisheries Management: The Key to Sustainable Fisheries

By Kristin Jones

Many of the world’s fish populations are overexploited and the marine ecosystems that sustain these fisheries are degrading.[1] Both recreational and commercial fishing can present many negative consequences for target and non-target species. Such ecosystem-transforming effects include the reduction of predators, whether deliberately or unintentionally, and habitat destruction through the use of habitat-modifying gear.[2] A common example of such habitat altering gear is the bottom trawl, which rakes the organisms that live on the bottom of the ocean, killing plants and animals, and disturbing important ecological processes.[3] Some fishing practices concentrate the harvest on apex predators which can cause a cascading effect down the food chain that not only reduces diversity, but also productivity.[4] Overfishing of top predators can result in a direct increase in the population of their prey, conceivably altering the remaining food web.[5] In addition, populations of scavenger species that may not have been as abundant before could be sustained by the excessive discard of bycatch during fishing.[6] The combination of environmental degradation, as well as ecological impacts caused by fisheries, reduces the capacity of marine ecosystems to support sustainable fisheries. In addition, the loss of biodiversity, whether at the species or ecological community level, is virtually irreversible.[7]

Currently, single-species management techniques are the most widespread way to manage fisheries in the United States. However, this form of management fails to prevent overfishing, bycatch, habitat degradation, and fishing-induced food web changes that alter the structure, function, productivity, and resilience of marine ecosystems.[8] Single-species management focuses on maximizing the catch of a single target species while at the same time poorly or not at all accounting for the interaction of target species with their habitat, predators, and prey.[9] These types of management strategies often fail to protect marine systems from human pressures or fishery collapses which in turn deeply impacts the humans that depend on these resources.[10] In addition, social and economic pressures contribute to excessive fishing effort that occur in current management through ineffective regulations and lack of support of law enforcement.[11] Successfully implementing single-species management, such as the development of sustainable fishery harvests that minimize overfishing, would be a step in the right direction in regard to maintaining these ecosystems. However, this would not be sufficient on its own. It is necessary to deal with the larger ecosystem concerns.[12]

In 1999, in an attempt to address the need to recognize marine ecosystems in fisheries management, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) Ecosystem Principles Advisory Panel called for an ecosystem-based management approach in a report to Congress.[13] Ecosystem-based fisheries management (EBFM) is a more holistic approach than single-species fisheries management. It does not aim to manage the ecosystems themselves, but rather manages the human activities that have an impact on ecosystems and taking these effects into account when making management decisions.[14] The overall goal of EBFM is to sustain healthy marine ecosystems and the fisheries they support.[15] Despite these general ideas, there is a large disconnect between how the scientific community defines EBFM.[16] This variation in how scholars define EBFM has impeded its practical application.[17] In addition, EBFM presents other challenges such as complexity. EBFM is much more complex than single-species management as it requires considering how a species interacts with its environment.[18] Regardless of these issues, it is necessary to account for the ecosystem when managing fisheries. The switch to ecosystem-based management is necessary to lessen the impact fisheries have on the ecosystems and in turn create more sustainable fisheries.

Image from Ecori News

[1] Daniel Pauly et al., Fishing Down Marine Food Webs, 279 Science 860 (1998); Ellen K. Pikitch et al., Ecosystem-Based Fishery Management, 305 Science 346 (2004); Phillip S. Levin & Christian Möllmann, Marine Ecosystem Regime Shifts: Challenges and Opportunities for Ecosystem-Based Management, 370 Phil. Transactions of the Royal Soc’y B: Biological Sci. (2015).

[2] Ray Hilborn, Future Directions in Ecosystem Based Fisheries Management: A Personal Perspective, 108 Fisheries Research 235 (2011).

[3] Tundi Agardy, Effects of Fisheries on Marine Ecosystems: A Conservationist’s Perspective, 57 ICES J. Of Marine Sci. 761 (2000).

[4] Larry B. Crowder et al., The Impacts of Fisheries on Marine Ecosystems and the Transition to Ecosystem-Based Management, 39 The Ann. Rev. of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics 259 (2008); Simon Jennings & Michel J. Kaiser, The Effects of Fishing on Marine Ecosystems, 34 Advances in Marine Biology 201 (1998); Rachel D. Long et al., Key Principles of Marine Ecosystem-Based Management, 57 Marine Pol’y 53 (2015).

[5] Crowder et al., supra note 4.

[6] Jennings & Kaiser, supra note 4.

[7] Agardy, supra note 3.

[8] Crowder et al., supra note 4; Paul K. Dayton et al., Ecological Effects of Fishing in Marine Ecosystems of the United States, Pew Oceans Comm’n 1 (2002); Hilborn, supra note 2.

[9] Pikitch et al., supra note 1.

[10] Long et al., supra note 4.

[11] Dayton et al., supra note 8.

[12] Agardy, supra note 3.

[13] Dayton et al., supra note 8.

[14] Long et al., supra note 4.

[15] Pikitch et al., supra note 1.

[16] Richard Curtin & Raúl Prellezo, Understanding Marine Ecosystem Based Management: A Literature Review, 34 Marine Pol’y 821 (2010); Long et al., supra note 4.

[17] Long et al., supra note 4.

[18] Hilborn, supra note 2.

One comment

  1. Ms. Jones,

    I am heavily interested in the topic of marine fisheries and am happy to see that your post concluded in some type of solution for the plagues of overfishing and in turn the decrease in so many marine populations. The ecosystem-based fisheries management (EBFM) seems like something that can offer a solution because it is a more wholistic view. I appreciate greatly that it is a more holistic approach than single-species fisheries management. Being so pigeon holed in the approach of fisheries management leaves a huge logic gap in the fact that the continuation or degredation of seperate species populations effect one another. I am wondering however what, if anything, is ever included in this model looking to indigenous populations who fish culturally? Is this built in? Great and thoughtful article. Wishing you all the best in your continued research and looking forward to more work from you, Ms. Jones.

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