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Flounder Guru Connects with Habitats

August 07, 2017

David Packer, a marine ecologist from NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Sandy Hook, New Jersey, reviews his decades of work to build awareness of essential fish habitat.

Tell us a little about yourself.

My name is Dave Packer and I was born in a log cabin on the shores of Lake Erie, deep in the bosom of suburbia. Fast forwarding a few years, I’ve been a marine ecologist at NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center for 25 years. A lot of what I do is unique, because I wind up working with both the New England Fishery Management Council and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, and NOAA’s Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office. And as far as I know, there are no other habitat scientists doing that sort of thing.


How has your work on fisheries and habitat issues changed over time?

When I started working on habitat at the science center, there was this clear separation of church and state, between the scientists and the managers. For example, if the managers want to know where summer flounder spawns, but the scientists are more interested in studying the diet of summer flounder, never the two shall meet.


When the Essential Fish Habitat (EFH) provisions became a part of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act in 1996, it forced us to pay attention to what the regional managers needed. They work with other federal agencies to conserve EFH, so they need to know where summer flounder spawns, and they come to us for that information.


We used to have the separation of church and state with the fishery management councils, too, but we now work closely with them to conserve habitat, including EFH and deep sea corals. We have a joint responsibility to conserve EFH, and that has helped break down those barriers.


How did you first get involved with Essential Fish Habitat?

In 1995, our division chief, Jeff Cross, asked me if I wanted to work on a new habitat effort. The science center's role was to provide the information to the regional office to help the fishery management councils identify, describe, and ultimately conserve EFH for their fishery species. We were the science behind what the managers were going to do.


This turned into a major effort in our science center to create what we call species “source documents.” We provided the managers with as much information as possible for each managed species. We scoured the literature and anything else we could find to compile habitat information about these species into a go-to document that the science center, regional office, councils, or anyone else could use to make informed decisions about the habitat each species needs throughout its lifecycle.


I am very proud of those source documents. This was a major team effort, and we tapped a variety of scientists who had expertise in various fish species. The source documents became very popular with managers, and especially the public because they contained everything they needed to know about a species at that time. People would call up and ask, “Where can I get information on bluefish?” And we'd say, 'Here, have this source document. This is all you need.’ They were the source for EFH information for all of our federally managed species for the region.


Why were the EFH source documents important to fisheries managers?

Managers in our regional office and the two fishery management councils constantly use the source documents. The information in those documents was used to create the initial EFH designations for many of our species in New England and the Mid-Atlantic. Personally, EFH and those source documents made my career, so I'm very grateful for it. It's gratifying and important to see this stuff continue. It really forced us to think more about how habitat affects fisheries, particularly in regions like ours where we're used to thinking in terms of stock assessments.


We updated most of the source documents in 2005, but keeping them updated has been challenging. It's hard to get that kind of group effort together again.  The people who wrote some of the original documents have retired. Unfortunately, with our competing needs to conduct research to inform important management decisions, there are just not enough resources to keep this information up to date.


Were you in charge of reviewing a specific species?

I was in charge of summer flounder. There was a lot of information. It took months and months to get it all together and put it into a cohesive document. For example, I found a master's thesis that said submerged aquatic vegetation, like eelgrass, are important habitats for summer flounder feeding. That information was included in the source document, and ultimately led to eelgrass being designated as a habitat area of particular concern for summer flounder by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council. Another fun fact: at the time, Science magazine was writing an article about EFH because it was a new thing, and I got mentioned in there as the “world’s expert” on summer flounder, even though it's not true at all. But it was fun to be mentioned in Science, just because I'd read every darn paper on summer flounder that I could lay my hands on.


Why should we be excited about the 20th anniversary of EFH?

I think EFH forced us at the science center to think about habitat more, forced everyone else to think about habitat more. As far as I know, implementing the new EFH provisions became the first cross branch, cross-division effort to get something done on such a large scale, and it raised questions with which we still struggle. We’re still figuring out how to get habitat into stock assessments, how to connect habitat to fisheries productivity – it’s very complicated. The 20th anniversary celebrates the fact that habitat conservation is important to fisheries management.

Last updated by Office of Habitat Conservation on February 22, 2018