Managing ecosystems on three levels

24 Jan 2013
Dr Jason Link

Dr Jason Link

Menakhem Ben-Yami exclusively interviews NOAA’s new Senior Scientist for Ecosystem Management, Jason Link.

Menakhem Ben-Yami: First, let me congratulate you Dr Link, on behalf of myself and World Fishing & Aquaculture, on your new assignment as a NOAA's Senior Scientist for Ecosystem Management. No doubt, it's not going to be an easy job, especially in view of the complexity of any and in particular marine ecosystems. All the more as there is more than one interpretation of the concept of marine ecosystem management on one hand, and a plethora of opinions as to how to handle it, on the other. WF&A readers would surely be interested in what your approach to these problems will be?

Jason Link: Thank you Dr Ben-Yami and World Fishing & Aquaculture. I appreciate the opportunity to discuss this topic with you.

I think that it is healthy, necessary and not surprising that there are many opinions as to what ecosystem management means, and that it is valuable to have such discussions. As scientific disciplines and management applications develop, it's necessary to evaluate a range of trade-offs about how an ecosystem could be managed. As you note, there are many opinions of how to tackle the problem. 

We intend to view marine ecosystem management at three levels:
1. Ecosystem based management (EBM), where multiple ocean-use sectors are discussed and strategic decisions made as to various trade-offs among them
2. Ecosystem-based fisheries management (EBFM), which has facets of both strategic and tactical decisions within solely the fisheries sector
3. Ecosystem approach to fisheries (EAF), which adds-in ecosystem considerations to the stock-assessment-based tactical management decisions, again solely within the fisheries sector

The reason I make distinctions among these three levels is that the analytical tools, governance bodies, degree of detail, mandates, venues for evaluating science and venues for ultimately making decisions vary depending upon the issue at hand. Therefore, I'd suggest employing technically different approaches, as appropriate, for any of these levels. Many of the existing analytical tools and venues may not be appropriate if applied at different levels of ecosystem management. A part of my new role shall be to help develop new analytical capabilities and more clearly delineate at what level the range of particular issues should be addressed. I view the issue you raised as a triad, with fisheries production in the center, as influenced by internal biological dynamics (e.g. ecological interactions), environmental factors (e.g. temperature), and fishing, so that we consider all factors that influence fisheries, and how fisheries, as well other human activities, influence marine ecosystems.

MB-Y: I think that our readers would appreciate it if you could elaborate, especially with respect to your distinction between EBFM and EFM. Most experienced fishing skippers and many scientists question now the validity of any fisheries management that doesn't comprise all environmental/ecosystem factors, also such as longshore development that comes at the expense of inshore spawning and outgrowing areas. It is also a common knowledge that coastal and up-stream pollution directly or indirectly affects populations of fish and other marine organisms.

JL: Let's regard, as an example, small pelagics, for which, for EAF we should consider the effects of environmental factors (e.g. temperature changes or El Nino events) and ecological factors (e.g. predatory removals) in addition to targeted fisheries removals to grasp the dynamics of such forage stocks. For EBFM, we should consider not only the impacts of other factors on the small pelagics, but also how they affect other parts of the ecosystem. For instance, if protected seabirds or marine mammals, as well as commercially targeted ground-fishes that as major predators are highly dependent upon small pelagics, and there are multiple fisheries operating on both the groundfish and the small pelagics, then clearly a more integrated, ‘bigger picture’ evaluation of the whole system and how it fits together is needed to address the potential tradeoffs among the different uses of and impacts on forage stocks.

Now consider an example where small pelagics migrate between the sea and fresh water bodies and spawn in rivers or estuaries. For EBM, they and their role in the ecosystem must be considered in a broader context of, say, power plant discharges (thermal impacts), eutrophication, toxin deposition, hydroelectric energy generation, dredging for navigation safety, and other uses of their spawning habitats. Thus, there are no easy answers or solutions, and providing any requires specific details for a particular situation, while highlighting the need for a systematic consideration of all such issues, and across the whole range of observed ocean uses.

MB-Y: Accepting this, how would you describe the practical part of your approach?

JL: We need to ask three questions in the process for managing resources:

(a) - What do we want (i.e. what are societal goals, legislative mandates, policy choices, regional objectives, etc.)?
(b) - Where are we relative to what we want (to answer this we may employ quantitative analysis tools)?
(c) How do we get from (b) to (a) while using various management tools

Clearly stated objectives are essential for any ecosystem-based effort. That is, how do we take mandates specified in various laws and ‘unpack’ them to local policies and priorities for addressing marine ecosystem issues. And how do we do so to best handle the range of trade-offs among multiple objectives of ocean uses? We must handle the whole thing expanding from EAF over all three above levels, which is how this general management approach is being applied to a wide range of ecosystem issues. Again, the degree of progress has varied given the local/area conditions.

MB-Y: Often, the fishing industry's perception is that ‘ecosystem management’ is understood, especially by some NGOs, as only the effect fisheries have on the ecosystem, without researching and considering all other influencing factors. What would be your answer to the industry?

JL: Clearly fisheries can affect parts of ecosystems, and clearly ecosystems can affect parts of fisheries. How correct is the perception you mention depends heavily upon which level of ecosystem considerations one is addressing. If one is examining the uses of a location of the ocean from solely a conservation or offshore wind farm siting objective, that perception may have some basis, but it's inappropriate for examining the productivity of fishery in the same location. With ecosystem approach we must consider all of these features simultaneously and find the range of options that, if they do not optimise a solution, at least minimise the amount of any one objective being over-ridden by others with a solution being unacceptable. 

Coordinating and discussing the range of issues occurring in any marine ecosystem is valuable outcome of an ecosystem approach. Part of my new role will be to help facilitate the exchange of best practices for exploring these trade-offs and the analytical and procedural capacity to do so.

MB-Y: Thank you very much, Dr Link. We wish you a fruitful co-operation with the fishing industry and a satisfactory stretch of duty.

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