Revisiting Hopes for Created and Restored Habitats

AFS Policy Director, Tom Bigford

AFS Policy Director, Tom Bigford

by AFS Policy Director Tom Bigford This column started with a singular focus on the ecological value of artificial or engineered spaces as surrogates for natural habitats. After some enlightening conversations at the AFS Annual Meeting in Québec City, my topic morphed into a broader policy arena. Besides habitats, we might create with sculpted sediments, nursery plantings, or mechanical assistance, I now found myself wondering about instant habitats such as artificial reefs constructed from materials as diverse as derelict subway cars, discarded appliances, and construction rubble. The grander discussion has a theme—each habitat has been created or restored, and each is accompanied by hopes it will serve an intended ecological purpose. That success, and how our experience is translated into management decisions and practice, is the subject of this policy column. All fisheries policy is based, we hope, in science. For these habitat questions, one should frame an investigation of important management options, apply the same reasonable doubt as we do with all scientific hypotheses, and determine whether current practices are producing intended results. I wonder whether our track record affirms that we have the technical skills to create or restore functional fish habitat on a scale that can offset natural habitats we have degraded or lost. We need those scientific answers to inform policy and management decisions. While approaching this question based on nearly 40 years of related work, my suspicions were that we need to revisit our current policies. I wonder if we might be putting too much hope in our ability to mimic or even approach natural systems. If monitoring and experience confirms we can design a fish ladder that passes fish, for example, then do our passage policies affirm that the art of habitat creation and restoration have advanced into a science? I hope this column prompts the scrutiny we need to confirm we are serving our roles well as natural resource trustees. Habitat experts, and the permit regulators and fishery managers who benefit from their wisdoms, have assumed we can restore what has been degraded or even create what was destroyed or never existed. One application of this logic is when government resource agencies are entrusted with billions of dollars to restore fish habitats after spilled oil is recovered, Superfund sites are cleaned, a regulatory decision is rendered, or a hurricane decimates the coast. These decisions are crucial to aquatic resources. With so many native species extirpated from their natural habitats, everyone from users to trustees is hoping for a saving grace. As one example, recreational fishers hope we can use various materials and designs to create artificial habitats that will help to rebuild a declining fish population. When we choose to swap one habitat for another, there is an implicit assumption that those new or improved habitats will be used to some extent by fish, preferably the same species that were displaced when the habitat was altered. If our actions to dam a river valley or create a wetland are expected to generate some ecological replacement value, we should measure whether the new habitat mimics the natural habitat (spatially or temporally) in its ability to attract the in- tended species. This is where science, management, and policy experts need to confirm that the “art” of habitat work is soundly based in “science.” If our skills are lacking, then habitat-related decisions must be accompanied by a sliding scale or ratio that reflects our never-perfect role as creator. It usually takes years to create a salt marsh or stream riffle that mimics a natural habitat. Clearly, there are huge management implications from these habitat decisions. With these questions swirling in my mind, it was timely to hear speakers in Québec City question these same tenets. On one morning, Matthew Acre wondered whether an artificial river-reservoir interface could replace the ecological values of a natural river floodplain, Jason Barnucz addressed the question of whether open-water habitat in Lake Erie cleared of invasive Phragmites could be expected to return to its ecological norm, and several other speakers focused on monitoring restoration efforts and judging success. The questions also apply to hydrological patterns from river water releases and reservoir levels, as I was reminded often in the special symposium on “Dam Impacts on Fishery Resources.” The artificial reef arena offers an interesting parallel to these questions. Will a new substrate provide suitable fish habitat? Will those benefits persist long enough to meet ecological and human expectations? If the answer is yes to these questions, how should that contribution be quantified so decision makers can balance benefits and costs, or create credits to be used as offsets later in a mitigation or conservation banking context? In both the artificial reef and related designed-habitat worlds, another long-unresolved debate centers on whether engineered or artificial habitats support new biomass or instead simply re-locate individual fish to a new site. That question has sweeping implications throughout the habitat business. An artificial hard bottom or restored coral patch that concentrates anglers but almost certainly will pose challenges to fisheries managers. Imagine an artificial river habitat that attracts listed salmonids, increases fishing pressure on pre-spawning adults, and complicates court-ordered rebuilding or recovery plans. The reef could provide short-term benefits while jeopardizing longer-term goals. This question should be part of a scientific analysis that is long overdue, one that focuses on the ecosystems we cherish and the services they provide to Homo sapiens. When scientific studies and project monitoring confirm that a specific habitat technique warrants field application, we need to reflect that knowledge in our best practices manuals and agency policies. Our society continually faces habitat threats that demand the most efficient and effective responses, whether we’re dealing with a catastrophic chemical spill like that in the Elk River, West Virginia, in January 2014 or chronic prop scarring in shallow, vegetated lagoons nationwide. Imagine the power of knowing ahead which option would yield the best results for a specific habitat or species. Empirical data, management applications, and established policies would equate to shared knowledge and expectations that could shave years from both the protracted environmental and legal reviews and the slow pace of natural ecosystem recovery. Again revisiting our Québec City meeting in August 2014, it was nice to talk with representatives of two companies who are in the business of creating habitat and giving us some options as we seek to increase biomass by improving habitats. We still need to answer basic questions about increasing versus concentrating biomass, but in the interim Mossback Fish Habitat and Fish Habitat Forever are designing easily-deployed systems that might prove to be new tools in our restoration and creation tool box. We must strive to answer these scientific questions and up-date our management and policy actions. One approach would be to encourage graduate students to study these issues in their M.S. and Ph.D. research, either through theoretical or laboratory studies offish habitat conservation strategies or by developing and applying habitat monitoring protocols in the field. Until our uncertainties are resolved, we should revisit existing practices to determine if our restoration or mitigation ratios need to be revised or if it would be more logical to invest more in protection. The demands of a growing population dictate that our society will never have the authority to protect all ecological assets. Instead, the questions posed in this column will continue to challenge us and we will need to sharpen our capacity to restore, create, and mitigate. That sweeping challenge offers opportunities to every AFS member and Unit. Let’s get started!