Understanding how fish interact with other species and their environment makes using ecosystem approaches in fisheries management difficult to operationalize. The recent decision by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) to adopt ecological reference points (ERPs) for Atlantic menhaden shows how science can support the solutions.
ERPs are targets set by fishery managers for key metrics (e.g., fishing pressure or species abundance) aimed at maintaining the sustainability of the fishery as well as the health of the ecosystem. Managers will now be able to set catch limits for the menhaden fishery that not only account for their population size and the people that fish for them, but their role as critical prey species for several predators. This milestone is based on over ten years of advancement in fisheries science and modeling.
In 2008, the Lenfest Ocean Program funded Dr. Ellen Pikitch, Stonybrook University, New York, to convene the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force, a team of 13 preeminent scientists. Their report, “Little Fish, Big Impact” provided practical advice on sustainable management of forage species around the world. The Task Force elevated forage fish as a management priority in a variety of regions, however, the recommendations in the report were not specific to any one species.
One such region was the East Coast of the United States. At the time, the ASMFC was looking for how best to sustainably manage Atlantic menhaden. This tiny but critical fish provides food for striped bass, bluefish, and several other species, and serves as bait for fishermen. It is also the target of the largest fishery on the U.S. East Coast.
The ASMFC assembled a technical team known as the Biological and Ecological Reference Points Working Group (BERP) to assess the science on how to establish ecological metrics. To inform this effort, the Lenfest Ocean Program then funded Dr. Tom Miller, Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, University of Maryland, to develop ERPs by evaluating the role of menhaden in food webs and forecasting their population under different management scenarios.
What Miller created was a model that captured the complexity of the ecosystem. Unfortunately, the model was challenging to use in a management context. Thus, the Lenfest Ocean Program extended support to Miller’s collaborator, Dr. Andre Buchheister, Humboldt State University, to carry the model forward. Buchheister collaborated directly with the BERP, including inviting members on to his research team to simplify the model according to the ASMFC’s specific needs.
While the Task Force brought global attention to the important role forage fish play in ecosystems, these two projects show how science can help managers on the ground address a specific management question. Through mutual collaboration, Miller, Buchheister and their collaborators on the BERP made it possible for the ASMFC to adopt ERPs specific to Atlantic menhaden.
As this management decision is implemented, the model developed by Miller and Buchheister can continue to be used to test out a wider range of “what if” scenarios and management strategies as well as forecast the effects of ocean warming and other environmental changes on the productivity of species.
This week, the ASMFC has demonstrated how ecosystem approaches can be incorporated into fisheries management. Such progress is only possible when the scientific community responds to the management need through a sustained, collaborative approach.
Looking ahead, Buchheister and team are now working to publish their results in academic journals. As articles emerge, the Lenfest Ocean Program will be sharing them broadly and setting up outreach events to engage with managers and stakeholders. Sign up for the Lenfest newsletter, follow us on twitter @lenfestocean, or reach out to staff for announcements and updates on timing.