Adding Ecosystems to Fisheries Management

Thomas E. Bigford, AFS Policy Director

Whatever your professional fisheries calling, you’ve no doubt been hearing the growing call to add an ecosystem perspective to traditional fishery management. The concept is at least 20 years old and is definitely gaining momentum. With that modest start and a spurt in 2016, it’s safe to expect less of what used to be traditional single-species management—harvest without habitat or forage considerations, disregard for avian and mammal populations, and casual consideration of human dimensions—and more discussions about forage, incidental catch, deep-sea corals, and ecosystem services. The ecosystem trend is most evident in marine fisheries but may be extending into freshwaters.

An important early effort by the National Oceanic and At- mospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Fisheries helped to establish expectations. The agency’s Ecosystem Principles Advisory Panel prepared a report to Congress on ecosystem-based fishery management (Ecosystem Principles Advisory Panel 1999). In 2003, Congress appropriated funds to NOAA so four regional marine fishery management councils could incorporate ecosystem considerations into fisheries management plans. That pilot program enabled the councils and their constituencies to engage in public debate on goal setting and the types of considerations to be included in ecosystem management and to identify issues not covered under existing authorities or approaches. Guidance from that cooperative effort (MAFMC 2006) helped pave the way for successful undertakings a decade later.

This topic should sound familiar to AFS members. Fisheries magazine recently included a Guest Policy Column (Coakley and Moore 2016) by the primary architects of a sweeping ecosystem approach to managing harvested species, unique continental shelf canyons, and recently discovered deep-sea coral gardens. That effort by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council started in December 2011 with the development of an Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries Management (EAFM) guidance document. Their primary purpose was to enhance “species-specific management programs with more ecosystem science, broader ecosystem considerations, and management policies that coordinate Council management across fisheries management plans and the relevant ecosystems” (MAFMC 2017a). With input from its own EAFM advisory panel and planning committee, the original guidance was updated in August 2016 (MAFMC 2017b). The next significant contributions to the ecosystem vision were the NOAA Fisheries policy statement (NOAA Fisheries 2016a) and road map (NOAA Fisheries 2016b), two documents that shifted managers from theory to practice.

Note one important difference between the MAFMC and NOAA Fisheries strategies. As described above, the MAFMC designed its “approach” to bolster traditional species-specific management with ecosystem principles and expectations (MAFMC 2017a). Their EAFM appears to be an approach or step toward managing fish on an ecosystem basis. On the other hand, NOAA Fisheries made a conscious effort to step beyond an ecosystem approach and toward fishery management “based” on ecosystem principles. The two approaches might not be quite so distinct, as I noticed that Coakley and Moore (2016) used “based” in their title when talked about their approach.

I sense a distinction. That broader base may be intended to better inform decisions regarding trade-offs among and between fisheries (commercial, recreational, and subsistence), aquaculture, protected species, biodiversity, and habitats (NOAA Fisheries 2016a). The NOAA guidance goes on to recognize the interconnectedness of ecosystem components and resilient and productive ecosystems (including the human communities on which they depend). Eventually we might embrace ecosystem management (without a qualifier) of our oceans that becomes less fish-centric and more inclusive of other users and uses. Recent efforts on coastal and marine spatial planning provide the best glimpse of that promising approach.

There are reasonable parallels of that marine experience from inland fisheries. The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization encourages inclusive approaches because freshwater fisheries are strongly affected by other water and land users. The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization website ( describes more of an EBFM approach to engage stakeholders and manage fisheries with appropriate consideration of societal needs, all without jeop- ardizing the options for future generations. Globally, such efforts may be most advanced in large rivers and lakes, especially those with shared management jurisdictions.

Ecosystem considerations are here to stay. Let’s make the most of them as we implement recommendations from our “Future of the Nation’s Aquatic Resources” report (AFS 2017) and prepare for the 2017 AFS Annual Meeting in Tampa (see the AFS home page).

Note: This column represents my personal opinions. They do not necessarily represent those of the American Fisheries Society. Comments are invited at [email protected]


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