Fishing in the United States is a multi-billion-dollar industry. Its importance is reflected in the historical contributions of US fisheries to maritime culture, and certainly in the many iconic seafood dishes found along America’s coasts. From the frigid waters of Alaska, where groundfish and king crabs thrive, to the warmer-water shrimp, snapper, and grouper fisheries of the Gulf of Mexico, the livelihoods of many US residents depend on the sustainability of these species. While consumers may focus their attention on a particular favorite fish or shellfish, populations of these species don’t live in a vacuum. In addition to the direct impacts of fishing, they are subject to effects from multiple environmental stressors and other ocean uses (such as energy, transportation, and tourism) on their ecologies and habitats, while interacting with other species throughout the food web.
In many ways, an orchestra serves as a great illustration of a marine ecosystem, with all components functioning at different levels while still being interconnected. The setting of a single factor influences the whole and its other parts, including how they meld together throughout the system. If one string or reed gets warped or breaks, or the timing of a key element gets shifted, not only does it affect the harmony of the same instruments of a given section, but it has major ramifications across the full ensemble of instruments. All parts need to be conducted (or managed) to minimize discordance, with the functioning of the whole depending on the quality and composition of its parts. These concepts are likewise considered when cumulatively managing the key elements of fisheries systems through ecosystem-based fisheries management (EBFM).
Thus, EBFM is rapidly becoming the default approach in global fisheries management, with the clarity of its definition and approaches for its implementation sharpening each year in US and international jurisdictions. An EBFM policy for the US is now in effect, with regional implementation plans for all major US marine regions. Fishery Ecosystem Plans (FEPs) are also in development, or have been developed and refined, for all major regions and several subregions. Given these recent advances, there has been a need to evaluate progress and assess the effectiveness and impacts of EBFM. The challenge is to objectively and quantitatively ascertain progress towards EBFM, and ensure wide-ranging applicability of the findings.
For assessing this progress, recent work has illustrated the utility of examining an ecosystem through a socioecological focus. This approach recognizes that a system’s natural and human environments set the basis for the status, quality, and composition of its living marine resources (i.e., fishery and protected species) and marine socioeconomics. Factors like primary production (the growth of aquatic plants or animals that conduct photosynthesis and serve as the base of the food web for most marine life) set foundational limits on the total harvest or economic revenue of a given fisheries system, which need to be considered when managing at the ecosystem level. Environmental and human stressors like climate change, climate oscillations (e.g., El Niño events), overfishing, coastal and offshore development, ocean siting, and many other variables, directly affect future primary production, marine species, coastal communities, and their interconnectivity. EBFM accounts for the effects and interrelationships of these factors within fisheries systems, as well as their trade-offs, to allow for more holistic, improved management of living marine resources.
As with an orchestra’s performance, it’s important to recognize that when we’re out of tune on one factor, it also affects things down the line, at multiple scales, and can potentially throw the system out of harmony. Understanding these effects and working to maintain (or restore) that balance is a key element of EBFM, especially given the many implications for numerous components throughout the ecosystem. While much work still remains to be done in carrying out EBFM, significant progress has been made to better address many of the challenges facing the sustainable management of living marine resources.