Myths About Ecosystem-Based Fisheries Management
Learn about some of the most common myths that can impede EBFM implementation.
Ecosystem-based fisheries management is a cornerstone of NOAA Fisheries’ efforts to sustainably manage the nation’s marine resources. Yet despite substantial progress in the science behind and application of EBFM, critics believe that we lack the science and governance structures to implement EBFM—when in fact, the United States and other developed countries have already resolved these needs. An April 2015 article in Fisheries took on the important challenge of identifying some of the most common myths that can impede EBFM implementation (PDF, 7 pages).
Here’s a look at some of the myths:
Myth 1: Marine Ecosystem-Based Management Lacks Universal Terminology, Making it Difficult to Implement
The scientific literature provides clear and consistent definitions of marine ecosystem-based management and associated terminology. There are three primary levels of ecosystem-based management in relation to marine fisheries. From least comprehensive to most comprehensive, the three levels differ by their key focus area:
- Ecosystem approaches to fisheries management focus on a single fisheries stock and include other factors that can influence a stock.
- Ecosystem-based fisheries management focuses on the entire fisheries sector (multiple fisheries).
- Ecosystem-based management focuses on multiple sectors, such as fisheries, ecotourism, and oil and gas exploration.
Myth 2: There’s no Clear Mandate for EBFM
For the past 20 years, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, combined with more than 90 separate federal legislative mandates, has either implicitly or explicitly authorized NOAA to implement an ecosystem-based approach to management. During this period, NOAA Fisheries has fully engaged in implementing EBFM to fulfill its key mandate—stewardship of the nation’s living marine resources and their habitats, interactions, and ecosystems. Rather than waiting for the perfect mandate to move forward with EBFM, managers, scientists, and policymakers can and should move forward under the current authorities.
Myth 3: EBFM Requires Extensive Data and Complicated Models
A common misconception is that EBFM requires comprehensive data and complex models and can only be applied in exceptional, data-rich circumstances. The reality is that EBFM begins with what is known about the ecosystem. It provides a framework to use all available knowledge of the ecosystem, whether it’s a detailed time series of species abundance or more descriptive local knowledge. When data are limited, approaches such as risk, portfolio, or loop analyses can be applied to work with available information. These techniques give managers a tool to assess whether a fish population or the ecosystem is likely to reach a tipping point.
EBFM allows managers to work with available information to best manage the resources in an ecosystem while being simultaneously aware of all its parts.
Myth 4: EBFM Results Will Always be Conservative and Restrictive
Critics suggest that EBFM will always result in a more precautionary approach to management and reduced catch limits. They believe that accounting for more uncertainty and focusing on conserving protected or non-target species will lead to more restrictive management measures that further reduce catches below the largest, long-term average catch that can be taken under existing conditions, otherwise known as the maximum sustainable yield. Fisheries scientists over the past half-century have criticized the concept of maximum sustainable yield for a single species because it is impossible to achieve maximum sustainable yield for all species simultaneously. EBFM, however, can result in increased catch rates for some species. For example, the butterfish assessment included an ecosystem component (ocean temperature) to better predict habitat and decrease uncertainty in spatial distribution; it ultimately resulted in a higher catch rate.
Furthermore, some studies show that when management applies EBFM and focuses on the combined landings and value of all targeted species in an ecosystem, the landings are comparable to the amounts under single-species management. Plus, there may be long-term economic benefits for multiple fisheries when the system is managed as a whole.
Myth 5: EBFM is a Naïve Attempt to Describe a Complex System
Ecosystem scientists appreciate the complexity of marine systems and acknowledge their inability to fully understand or predict what will occur. But managing beyond traditional single-species management can clarify trade-offs that occur between fishermen or between management mandates, resulting in more transparent and robust decisions.
Proponents see EBFM as a solution, whereas critics see it as an approach that falls short of addressing the many socioeconomic, political, and other challenges inherent in marine resources management. Scientific agencies worldwide have traditionally given fishery management advice on a stock-by-stock basis, rather than considering multiple fisheries and multiple user groups. But ignoring the trade-offs, or the existence of multiple objectives, does not make them go away. Different stakeholders often have competing interests, and it is important to acknowledge these differences and identify management options that optimize the full range of interests. Strategies can often meet multiple objectives, ensuring that no single stock, fishery, sector, economy, or community is unknowingly depleted at the expense of another. Ultimately, EBFM is about trade-off analysis, examining which options meet the most objectives as a collective system.
Myth 6: There Aren’t Enough Resources to Do EBFM
A final myth is that it will take substantially more funding, staff, data, and sophisticated models to implement EBFM. But EBFM implementation actually has the potential to increase efficiencies. Many national and international working groups support single-species management efforts. Transitioning to EBFM would require fewer working groups by allowing multiple species to be addressed through a more integrated assessment process. This could potentially reduce staff workloads and consolidate modeling efforts. In addition, applying EBFM has been shown to improve the stability of marine ecosystems, which translates into improved regulatory and economic stability and better business planning.
Dispelling the Myths and Taking Action
These myths have discouraged some managers from even trying EBFM and have prevented them from getting the best available information needed for resource management. Instead of viewing EBFM as a complex management process that requires an overabundance of information, managers should view EBFM as a framework to help them use the information they have to address competing objectives.