Why monitoring makes sense

In depth NOAA fisheries science and management programme has led to the recovery of some major fisheries in the US. Picture courtesy of NOAA In depth NOAA fisheries science and management programme has led to the recovery of some major fisheries in the US. Picture courtesy of NOAA
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How has the combination of sound fisheries science and management programmes led to the recovery of some fisheries? Adrian Tatum reports.

The recovery of some US fisheries that were once badly affected by overfishing has contributed to other widespread evidence that sound fishery science combined with stock management programmes are helping fish stocks recover worldwide.

Last year’s Natural Resources Defense Council report showed that two-thirds of closely monitored US fish species had showed massive improvements due to management plans put in place 10-15 years ago.

The study used in-depth stock assessments and other data from NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service to chart the progress of stocks managed under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. That law was revamped by the US Congress in 1996, in an attempt to address plunging fish populations around America's coastlines.

The NRDC report charts progress for the 44 stocks that have sufficient population and catch data under the act and found nearly two-thirds, some 28 stocks, have now been designated as fully rebuilt or as having made significant progress toward sustainable populations.

This is one in a long line of recent reports that have indicated the link between sound fisheries science and fish stock recovery programmes and an upturn in stock levels around the world.

Recent reports in Europe have shown that many European fish stocks are recovering. A Current Biology journal report found that many stocks in the northeast Atlantic were being fished sustainably and, given time, should recover.

Scientists examined the status of 57 stocks monitored over 60 years in the northeast Atlantic.

They used data collected largely by government research institutes, including large programmes at hundreds of fish markets and at sea on hundreds of fishing and research vessels operating every day of the year. They found that over the last decade there had been substantial reductions in the exploitation of these populations, and this coincided with improvements in their status. They were surprised by the number of stocks that have improved since fishing pressure was reduced at the turn of the century. In 2011, for the first time, they say, the majority of fish stocks were being fished sustainably - the result of reforms put in place in 2002.

An example of this kind of success can be found in Shetland, where 2013 saw a record year for landings. The number of boxes sold through the local market’s electronic auction system by the end of August last year passed the 200,000 mark for the year. That is over 30,000 up on the same week in 2012 and more than 20,000 ahead of the equivalent stage of the best year until now, 2008.

The average number of boxes landed per week in the isles this year is just under 6,000 – compared with just over 5,000 for the whole of 2012. Cod and haddock are the main species landed, followed by monkfish, saithe and whiting.

Scientists currently use various methods to study fish populations, including tagging and mark and recapture. The information can aid researchers and managers in evaluating abundance and migration patterns, birth rates, mortality rates, and harvest levels of different marine populations. As with any scientific methodology, error and bias can be introduced and should be addressed appropriately.

But it is widely believed that it is the analysis and use of the data that is being collected that is helping towards fish stock recovery rather than overall changes to monitoring techniques.

The NOAA says scientific stock assessments are key to fisheries management. It regularly examines the effects of fishing and other factors to describe the past and current status of a fish stock, answer questions about the size of a fish stock, and make predictions about how a fish stock will respond to current and future management measures. Fish stock assessments support sustainable fisheries by providing fisheries managers with the information necessary to make sound decisions.

Stock assessments provide important science information necessary for the conservation and management of fish stocks. The Magnuson-Stevens Reauthorisation Act calls for the best scientific information available to manage US commercial and recreational fisheries. More than 500 fish stocks in the United States are managed under fishery management plans produced by eight regional fishery management councils. Additionally, coastal states and international organisations rely on NOAA Fisheries’ stock assessments for the management of non-federal and joint jurisdiction fish stocks.

In the US, stock assessments are based on models of fish populations that require three primary categories of information: catch, abundance, and biology. To ensure the highest quality stock assessments, the data used must be accurate and timely. A national network of fishery monitoring programs continuously collects catch data and makes this information available to stock assessment scientists and managers. Sources of catch data include:

  • Dockside monitoring: Often conducted in partnership with state agencies and Fishery Commissions, dockside monitoring records commercial catch receipts to give an accurate measure of commercial landings and provides biological samples of the length, sex, and age of fish
  • Logbooks: Records from commercial fishermen of their location, gear, and catch
  • Observers: Biologists observe fishing operations on a certain proportion of fishing vessels and collect data on the amount of catch and discards
  • Recreational sampling: Telephone interview surveys and dockside sampling estimate the level of catch by the recreational fishery
  • Abundance data: A measure, or relative index, of the number or weight of fish in the stock. Data ideally come from a statistically-designed, fishery-independent survey that samples fish at hundreds of locations throughout the stock’s range

Elsewhere, the UK Marine Monitoring and Assessment Strategy (UKMMAS7) was set up in 2005 in response to recommendations in Charting Progress that a more co-ordinated and integrated approach to marine monitoring and assessment was needed. UKMMAS publishes regular assessments of the marine environment. It has about 250 stakeholders, including government agencies and non-departmental public bodies, working at various levels within its structure, and with representatives from the Devolved Administrations being fully engaged at each level. The high level Marine Assessment and Policy Committee (MAPC) provides policy direction, secures funding and defines monitoring requirements for an implementation group – the Marine Assessment Reporting Group (MARG).


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