Counting on Living Fish

by Boyce Thorne-Miller NAMA’s Science and Policy Coordinator

Fish swim, unseen.
The fisherman senses
they are present.

We are entering a moment of transition as Ecosystem Based Management has become part of our nation’s Ocean Policy and Ecosystem Based Fisheries Management (EBFM)*, following the lead of  the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, is becoming the key component of a regional vision for the future of New England fisheries management.

Times of transition offer opportunities for creativity, and that is just what we should expect from our fisheries managers and our fishermen.

Ecosystem Based Management is a sterile term that can be defined many ways.  I prefer to think that we are about to move from dead fish management to living fish management.  I welcome that change! I am convinced it will be far more successful in recovering and maintaining diverse fish populations and in nurturing the ecosystems that support them.  And I believe many of our New England community fishermen are capable of playing a key role in providing essential scientific information that will be required to make this management work.

Biologists and ecologists in the past were natural scientists who spent much of their lives in the field, and through experience and knowledge the best of them learned to enter a wilderness environment and integrate a vast amount of information perceived through their six senses. Living ecosystems and wildlife provide far more complex and important information than a collection of dead animals can give us.  But you have to know how to read living systems. 

The old time biologists were able to interpret a great deal of the character and biological interactions of the living ecosystem simply through keen observation and knowing how to integrate and interpret that information.  Now those same kinds of scientists spend much of their time reading instruments and interpreting data through computer models.  But where does their data come from – all too often from dead fish.  Models enable a new ability to predict a variety of outcomes under different possible conditions, but often the full complexity of an ecosystem is sacrificed in order to make the models manageable. 

A cadre of fishermen, with on-board instruments, keen senses and understanding of the environment in which they work each day, have taken over the role of field naturalists in the marine realm.  They possess real-time information about the living ecosystem. Science makes a grave mistake if it chooses to rely exclusively or primarily on the information provided by dead fish and ignore what is known about the living fish that remain.  The numerical data about catches that must be reported to fisheries managers is important, but so is information about how living populations of fisheries and their support species are behaving and moving. 

Nevertheless, it is important that such information be reported in consistent format that makes it useful in ecological models and stock assessments.  Fishermen should work with scientists to design a useful system.  And scientists need to find a way of using that information effectively in their models – even non-numerical data, such as fish behavior and food-web observations. As the new management models tackle the difficulties of incorporating social science information to incorporate humans as part of the ecosystem, they are also obliged to better incorporate information about living species networks. It’s time to move beyond counting dead fish one species at a time.

The ability of the best naturalists, be they PhD biologists or fishermen-scientists, to integrate information and understand the whole that is more than the sum of the observed parts is unique to the human brain.  So far computers cannot accomplish that without detailed instructions and the right kind of data.  Intuition is a valuable tool that is only available to human observers.  Fishermen who can do this well are themselves scientists, and their information is critical to the success of new living fish management.

Data can and should be collected and used at different scales, from smaller local scales that detect critical habitat areas and spawning populations to larger regional scales that integrate regional stocks and larger ecological processes affecting them. A variety of tools can be employed – from satellites and models run on computers, to sampling tools on large research boats, to diverse fishing gear and daily observations from fishermen on small vessels, to catch reports and observers reports required under fisheries management.  Data and observations from government scientists, academic scientists, social scientists, and fishermen-scientists alike will be needed to make this new management work.  And that means the toxic mistrust among these groups of professionals must end and a mutual willingness to improve techniques and coordinate information must begin.

A new era of close cooperation and mutual respect between government, academia, and fishermen is the creative catalyst that is needed for the new management to work.  Just such a spirit of cooperation and the sharing of power that comes from the sharing of information was described at length in a discussion of the California spiny lobster fishery as their research program, CALoster got underway a couple of years ago.

The integration of different types of knowledge and different scales of key biological information will enable holistic pictures of fisheries ecosystems essential to successful fisheries management. How to make this happen and what new management structures should look like are topics for future blogs as we travel with fishermen and fisheries managers down the road of EBFM – or living fish management.

*For details and emerging plans, check out some of these links:…/pikitch%20et%20al%20%202004.pdf…/Sanchirico%20et%20al%20Ecol%20Econ%20Jan08.pdf…/8.Fogarty_NEFMC%20S&S%20Aug%2026.pdf