Managing the Impacts of Human Activities on Fish Habitat: The Governance, Practices, and Science

New Roles for Habitat-New Needs for Science Support

Jake C. Rice


Abstract.—The landscape for policy and management of fish habitat is changing. The historic focus on evaluating environmental impact assessments for large projects, and issuing (or not) permits for small projects is being supplanted by new expectations for habitat managers and policy makers. Many of these new expectations are rooted in the adoption of an ecosystem approach to management of diverse human activities, including fisheries, in aquatic ecosystems, combined with a growing emphasis on integrated management of those human activities, in turn aided by spatial planning and spatial management approaches in many fields. These new expectations placed on habitat managers and policy makers create the need for expanded support from a new blending of habitat and population sciences. Historically, it may have been sufficient to use science advice based on relative indices of habitat quality and carefully assembled expert opinion as the basis for many tasks in habitat policy and management. Such tools now must be augmented by much more quantitative science advice, to allow for setting operational objectives for managing habitats, assessing the quality and quantity of critical or essential habitat for protected or exploited fish populations, conducting risk assessments of projects and mitigation measures, making siting decisions about marine protected areas and other spatial zoning measures, and many other tasks in which habitat managers and policy makers must participate. Science advice now must be able to quantify the relationships between habitat features and population status and productivity, as well with community properties such as resilience and vulnerability. This advice has to capture the uncertainty in the relationships and data sources, in forms that fit comfortably into risk assessments. Tools for forward projection of the habitat consequences of management options are needed, as are tools for cost-benefit analyses of tradeoffs among different types of habitats for different groups of aquatic species. None of these analytical challenges is beyond the scope of modern statistical and modelling capabilities, and current ecological concepts. Few of them can be met by existing tools and data-bases however. Moreover, many of the conceptual approaches to aquatic habitat management have been imported from terrestrial habitat management. They may have served adequately for management of riverine and marine benthic habitats, but some of the fundamental conceptual starting points are being questioned for marine and lacustrine habitats more generally. The paper brings out both some promising opportunities and some difficult challenges for the science needed to support contemporary habitat management and policy.