Tom's Top Ten Policy Issues

AFS Policy Director, Tom Bigford

AFS Policy Director, Tom Bigford

In closing my last column, I promised to share the top 10 issues facing fisheries, an inclusive term defined here as the fish, the people who fish, and the recreational and commercial industries. This is my list, based largely on deep immersion in science, management, and policy issues during my 18 months on the AFS staff, supplemented with another 35 plus years in the fish world. Rather than attempting to mimic David Letterman’s well-oiled routine, I made a conscious effort to identify issues well within our Society’s reach and also to be optimistic. These are the top opportunities, not the worst tragedies. So, here goes, in ascending order to what I view as our top policy priorities.

10. Lost structure

I worry about coral reefs bleaching, oyster reefs dying, worm rock eroding, freshwater mussels declining, and other physical habitats losing their battle for permanence. We can build our own replacements but I foresee the day when we better recognize the ecosystem values of structure and work to protect it before we are forced into more expensive restoration.

9. Invasive species

AFS-Top-Ten-10-issues-for-American-Fisheries-Society Non-native species that take hold at the expense of indigenous species are definitely a concern. Control or eradication is feasible if we act decisively. This huge issue would rank higher if it weren’t so pervasive. Still, we can do better at prevention, as with ballast water controls. That’s as optimistic as I can be about a problem that will be complicated as climate shifts and species distributions adjust.

8. Protected areas

Some feel the jury is still deliberating, but I’m convinced protected areas can be a valuable tool for managing fish stocks and fishing behavior. Marking some areas “off limits” can serve multiple purposes. Imagine an area closed to fishing yet suitable for renewable energy that also might include a navigation buoy and host archeological resources. I sense these win-win-win-win situations abound, if we cooperate and collaborate.

7. Flow regimes

With shifting climate, more people, and competing interests, every water molecule is oversubscribed. I sense Western water wars are about to trend nationally. The stress of new disputes will be a challenge for fisheries but an opportunity if we play well together (see #4). I envision smarter decisions on hydropower licenses, greater attention to inter-basin transfers, and fewer water withdrawals for recreational/personal use, among others.

6. Human-generated stress

Much on this list owes to human actions, but here I’m focusing directly on harvest-related impacts from overfishing, disruptive gears, mortality from catch and release, targeting larger fish, bycatch, and incidental take. We have the wherewithal to advance in each arena. Let’s do it! Reducing lead in fishing tackle and limiting bottom trawls have been steps forward. We need more steps, giant steps!

5. Climate change

This is perhaps the top issue facing us today. Undoubtedly, shifting environmental conditions are projected to change everything associated with fish. The suite of issues included in “climate change” will get our attention but perhaps more so in the narrower fields where progress awaits.

4. Silos

No, not vertical farm buildings but rather those attitudinal barriers to cooperative, interdisciplinary analysis and shared decision making. Inclusiveness across horizontal boundaries will yield better decisions with less acrimony. What could be better? I argued with myself about ranking this higher but decided to hide in my own silo.

3. Aquaculture

We cannot continue to act like hunter-gatherers from another epoch. We must continue our shift toward more efficient and effective methods to grow foods for a burgeoning global population. Aquaculture, both closed systems and open water, holds great promise if done wisely. Culturists are natural allies of those fighting for water quality and overall environmental health as their business will plummet if the public loses trust in their product.

2. Wetland loss

Continued, even increasing, wetland loss is a travesty with a silver lining. I hope national and coastal wetland loss numbers from the past decade will finally snap planners, regulators, resource managers, and citizens into reality. We have the knowledge to avoid these losses and to restore those losses that cannot be avoided. Besides being great fish habitat, wetlands have a newfound value, as explained in #1.

1. Blue carbon

Aquatic habitats, especially wetlands of all sorts (mudflats, marshes, mangroves, peat bogs, etc.) are the most efficient carbon sinks on Earth. Their value to fish has been documented, but we’ve learned in the past few years that their ability to sequester carbon may be an even more valuable service to humanity. We now have our strongest scientific basis to document the economic value of wet places and protect them from despoliation. That’s my list of primary opportunities. If I sliced our options a different way, I may have added fire, given its growing prevalence and societal costs. Or maybe I’d go in a different direction and select shifting baselines. After all, perception is the basis of all lists. But, I’m optimistic about these 10 opportunities. Go forth and do good things!

Tom Bigford, Policy Director