The Really Big Picture for Fish Habitat: The Conceptual Underpinnings and Vision for the National Fish Habitat Partnership’s National Fish Habitat Assessment
Gary E. Whelan
Abstract.—Over much of the history of fisheries management, fisheries biologists challenged with the conservation of degraded fisheries habitats have primarily focused on addressing the symptoms of habitat degradation as opposed to confronting the overarching processes and factors that control fish habitat condition. This is often attributable to the substantial amount of inaccessible or unorganized data that confound resource management decisions. The National Fish Habitat Partnership (NFHP) was formed in 2006 to provide a science-based, holistic, and voluntary-based approach to address the trillions of U.S. dollars in damages that have been inflicted on fish habitats in the United States. The NFHP uses a periodically measured, landscape-level national fish habitat assessment to identify intact systems that need conservation or protection and to assess the root causes of aquatic habitat degradation in altered systems. Categories of data and information contained within the NFHP national fish habitat assessment consist of hydrology, connectivity, water quality, material transport and recruitment, geomorphology, and aquatic organisms’ effect on habitat and energy flow. These processes are critically important in controlling fish habitat condition in all types of aquatic systems, with the key differences being the relative importance and the rates in which the processes and factors operate. Data and information on fish and aquatic organisms and social data are the other components needed to build a comprehensive assessment and decision support framework for fish habitats in the United States. A framework for a model national fish habitat assessment (model assessment) is outlined herein, with each category described in measurable subcomponents that are actionable by fisheries biologists or other aquatic resource managers. Key variables for each process and factor, along with needed data and information for development of dose–response relationships and social data for societal importance indication, are also provided. Although much of the data to fully populate a model assessment are not available currently, it is important to establish a vision for the future. Many of the envisioned data necessary for a model assessment are available on a localized or regional basis to enable the detailed analyses to occur on those spatial scales, allowing the testing of the robustness of the framework. Once the model assessment is fully developed, aquatic resource managers will have a powerful tool to prioritize the trillions of dollars needed to conserve intact and rehabilitate degraded aquatic habitats to build self-sustaining and resilient fish communities. The tool will also help facilitate the NFHP’s goals to maintain intact systems and to move degraded system processes and factors back to within 25% of the expected norms for those watersheds.