Science-based management in U.S. fisheries: Progress and the road ahead

In August, I had the honor of being the co-organizer of a symposium at the American Fisheries Society Annual Meeting titled “Ten Years of Science-Based management in U.S. Fisheries: Progress and the Road Ahead” with my colleague Jake Kritzer.  A distinguished group of eight speakers joined us to present papers on topics ranging from the evolution of the Magnuson-Stevens Act to the benefits that science-based management has yielded for Alaskan fisheries, and discuss how the Act has performed and how to tackle the challenges that remain with fisheries scientists and managers from across the country and globe.

Speakers included scientists, managers, and a commercial fisherman and covered a geographic range from Florida to Alaska.  Some of the speakers approached the subject with experience that extended back to well into the previous versions of the Act.

The consensus could be best summed up by one a point made by Dr. Mike Sissenwine, a council member of New England Fishery Management Council, early in his presentation: Science-based management has worked.

Overall, the group concluded that the current incarnation of the Magnuson-Stevens Act has greatly improved conservation outcomes.  Since the reauthorization, overfishing has decreased dramatically and a significant number of stocks have been rebuilt.

Our commercial fishing participant, Jason de la Cruz from Florida, noted that the current Act made him feel more confident about the basis of decisions and had led to increased opportunities to collaborate on science.  In Alaska, Diana Evans, deputy director for the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, highlighted that fishermen and managers now look beyond the difficult task of setting annual catch limits to new management challenges like ecosystem-based fishery management that can be informed by innovative scientific tools being created for their Fishery Ecosystem Plan.

The group also identified challenges that still exist under the current legal framework.  The most commonly highlighted issue was scientific uncertainty.  Managers and scientists alike can struggle with this complicated and frustrating concept.  While there are ways to measure uncertainty, when dealing with complex systems it can be difficult or impossible to understand its causes.  When dealing with stock rebuilding, additional uncertainty around future conditions, including the impacts of climate change, adds to the challenge.

Fortunately speakers also offered potential solutions, including:

  • Using ecosystem-based analytical tools to account for the complex interactions of different species and the effects of climate change. These tools can serve as the basis for ecosystem-based fishery management, which Alaskan fisheries have already identified as a priority; and
  • More adaptive control rules, which adjust management consistent with changes in fishing mortality.  The result could be smaller and more frequent adjustments that prevent serious stock depletion and the need for severe reductions in catch.

Both of these solutions were also key recommendations emerging from a blue ribbon task force organized by the National Research Council, the outcomes of which were shared during the symposium by Dr. Pat Sullivan, one of the co-chairs.  These tools already exist and their wider use could bring significant benefits.

No one on the panel advocated for fundamental changes to the Act itself as a “solution.”  The speakers believed that the challenges that exist could be addressed within the confines of the current MSA.  Further progress may require scientific innovation, improving implementation, or new management strategies, but there are ways to address these challenges without walking back the legal structure that has brought us where we are.

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