To successfully manage fisheries, factors in the environment that affect fish — like food sources, predators and habitat — should be considered as part of a holistic management plan.
That approach is gaining traction in fisheries management, but there has been no broad-scale evaluation of whether considering these ecosystem factors makes any economic sense for the commercial fishing industry. In these often profitable and competitive markets, that question has lacked the evidence to rule one way or another.
A team of ecologists and economists has addressed that question in the first study to test whether real-life ecological interactions produce economic benefits for the fishing industry. The results were published online last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“Going into this, I shared the belief that because we know species are connected, ignoring that connection is potentially putting ecosystems in harm. What we really found was a much more nuanced benefit,” said lead author Tim Essington, a University of Washington professor of aquatic and fishery sciences. “Rather than enhancing economic benefits, the holistic approaches to natural resource management are better viewed as a way to more equitably distribute risk and reward across different users.”
The researchers found that economic benefits were minor when ecological interactions were factored into the equation. Instead, this ecosystem-based approach offers other benefits to the fishing industry — namely, a simple set of rules to avoid scenarios that could cause a worst-case outcome for fishes and their surrounding environments.
Most U.S. fisheries are managed by looking at the biology of the targeted fish species. Managers consider what the species’ expected abundance is year to year and make decisions about how many can be caught each season. That process, however, doesn’t account for ecosystem factors such as predators, habitat or temperature that also can influence a species’ abundance. This can lead to an incorrect estimate of the number of fish that can be caught sustainably.
To test whether a holistic approach helps or hurts the industry from an economic perspective, the researchers looked at an actual predator-prey relationship between two fisheries, cod and herring. Separately, both fisheries are among the largest and most profitable in the world.
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