Will fisheries management best practices need to adapt as climate change impacts the ocean?

Editor’s note: This is the second in a multi-part blog series, Fisheries for the Future, examining the impacts from climate change on global fisheries and the opportunities to address these emerging challenges. Throughout the series, we’ll be investigating how climate change will impact the world’s supply and distribution of fish and what we can do to ensure the most sustainable future for ourselves and our planet.

Doctors say a healthy patient is better able to recover from an injury than an unhealthy one. In a similar vein, a healthy marine ecosystem is better able to withstand the effects of climate change compared to an unhealthy one. Managing fisheries right is one of the most important factors for addressing marine ecosystem health. In this blog we will talk about fishery management best practices and their importance in the face of climate change, how those practices may look different as a result of climate-related factors and some recent experiences with fisheries in Lithuania.

Over the last few decades we have learned what it takes to manage fisheries well and have worked with fishing communities around the world to develop robust management plans that are yielding positive results for fish populations and fishing communities.

Some of the elements of fisheries management best practice include:

  1. Scientifically determined catch limits
  2. Well-defined rights of access
  3. Systems of accountability
  4. Transparent decision-making processes
  5. Adequate enforcement provisions
  6. Measures that conserve important habitats

Fisheries can play an outsized role in shaping the health of marine ecosystems and the people who depend on them

Ecosystems with well-managed fisheries tend to be characterized by abundant fish stocks, intact habitats, thriving wildlife populations and robust fishing communities. Inversely, poorly-managed fisheries tend to have high rates of overfishing and habitat damage, and the surrounding ecosystem suffers. This matters in the face of climate change as healthier ecosystems are in a better position to withstand climate change effects due to abundance, diversity, habitat quality and other factors that comprise attributes of resilience.

Research bears out the relationship between fishery management and ecosystem health

A recent review of different fisheries was done as part of the IndiSeas project which measured ecosystem health, fisheries management and governance. One place that scored high on ecosystem health is the west coast of the U.S. — a place where Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has worked intensively for the last couple of decades to help get management right. Inversely, places with low ecosystem health scores (such as Tanzania and Guinea) tended to be places where fisheries management and governance also scored low. Now, not every region of the world is in a place where robust implementation of these best practices is possible. In such cases, implementation of basic fishery management is still one of the best steps to take, and should be done with an eye toward continued improvements in that system over time.

As climate change increasingly takes hold, elements of fisheries management best practice won’t go away. We will still need to prevent overfishing; we will still need to protect habitats; we will still need to manage fisheries with well-defined access and user rights; and so forth. However, the way in which we deploy these practices may start to look different given the way climate change will disrupt our ecological and social systems.

Collaborating with fishery managers in Lithuania on changing fish populations

One example concerns Lithuania’s fishery sector. Not long ago, a couple of us at EDF were contacted by officials within the Lithuanian Fisheries Department. Many fisheries there are managed by a system of individual quotas which help manage the catch of cod, sprat and other stocks off the Lithuanian coast in the Baltic Sea. Lithuania’s fishery managers contacted us because they were grappling with a precipitous decline in the populations of Baltic cod and a subsequent explosion in the populations of other species like sprat. The implication of this change in relative abundance has been severe economic strain on cod fishermen while their sprat-fishing counterparts experienced some incredibly lucrative years. This divergence of economic outcomes that has been occurring despite the presence of a good management system was causing political tension that threatened an otherwise sustainable system.

What the Lithuanian fishery sector is experiencing is wholly consistent with patterns that will play out around the world as climate change takes hold. That is, some fish stocks will become more abundant, others less abundant, and this will impact different portions of the fishery differently. These dynamics will create challenges for managers and stakeholders as they grapple with these changing conditions and struggle to ensure that outcomes are equitable in the face of these changes.

So, what is the answer to Lithuania’s dilemma?

One solution we were able to identify with our Lithuanian colleagues is the allocation of quota portfolios rather than individual species quotas (or even a bundle of individual quotas). In other words, rather than a case where each vessel has individual quota for cod, individual quota for sprat and so forth, a quota portfolio would allocate each vessel shares of the entire fishery. If a vessel held 3% of the fishery, then each year that vessel would receive 3% of the sustainable catch of cod, sprat and other species. In this way, vessels would be diversified and less prone to suffer from wide swings in abundance of individual species due to ecological conditions. What this looks like at the end of the day is still an example of fishery management best practice — scientifically determined catch limits, well-defined access rights and other measures. They just look a bit different.

Of course, we will want to do our best to implement these types of solutions before problems arise rather than after. This means that we will need to do our best to anticipate the types of change that climate change will bring and to identify and manage for the types of challenges that will arise. This is the topic of our next blog in this series. Stay tuned!

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