3
Adequacy of Science for Ecosystem and Biological Considerations

SCIENCE ISSUES: BEYOND STOCK ASSESSMENTS

The core activity of NMFS science in the last three decades has centered on stock assessments. The needs for more and better stock assessment science are fully recognized and will remain a challenge for NMFS. However, demand has grown in the last decade for information in other fields of science, particularly because of the increased recognition of ecosystem effects of fishing activities (NRC, 1999b; 2000b). Many of the criticisms of agency performance mirrored in much of the recent litigation are related to real or perceived deficiencies in the ability of NMFS to conduct ecological research to support or supplement its stock assessments.

Conserving or restoring fish habitats, reducing bycatch, protecting threatened and endangered species, and reducing effects of fishing on biological communities and habitats are at the forefront of public concerns with respect to fisheries management. Those concerns and others were identified nearly a decade ago (NRC, 1994). In a report mandated by Congress, a strong call for increasing emphasis on ecosystem approaches to support conventional fisheries management was issued by an NMFS-appointed expert panel (NMFS, 1999). Since 1998, NRC reports (supported in large part by NMFS to address issues of concern to the agency) have recommended increased research on ecosystem science and on ecosystem approaches to management (NRC, 1996a; 1999b; 2001). The MSFCMA reauthorization process is expected to increase the demand to understand



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Science and Its Role in the National Marine Fisheries Service 3 Adequacy of Science for Ecosystem and Biological Considerations SCIENCE ISSUES: BEYOND STOCK ASSESSMENTS The core activity of NMFS science in the last three decades has centered on stock assessments. The needs for more and better stock assessment science are fully recognized and will remain a challenge for NMFS. However, demand has grown in the last decade for information in other fields of science, particularly because of the increased recognition of ecosystem effects of fishing activities (NRC, 1999b; 2000b). Many of the criticisms of agency performance mirrored in much of the recent litigation are related to real or perceived deficiencies in the ability of NMFS to conduct ecological research to support or supplement its stock assessments. Conserving or restoring fish habitats, reducing bycatch, protecting threatened and endangered species, and reducing effects of fishing on biological communities and habitats are at the forefront of public concerns with respect to fisheries management. Those concerns and others were identified nearly a decade ago (NRC, 1994). In a report mandated by Congress, a strong call for increasing emphasis on ecosystem approaches to support conventional fisheries management was issued by an NMFS-appointed expert panel (NMFS, 1999). Since 1998, NRC reports (supported in large part by NMFS to address issues of concern to the agency) have recommended increased research on ecosystem science and on ecosystem approaches to management (NRC, 1996a; 1999b; 2001). The MSFCMA reauthorization process is expected to increase the demand to understand

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Science and Its Role in the National Marine Fisheries Service how fishing affects habitats and multispecies interactions (predator-prey relationships), the structure of biological communities, and sustainable yields and productivity of fished ecosystems. NMFS has not ignored these scientific needs. There are notable examples of ecosystem research conducted by NMFS in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska ecosystems and in other regions. NMFS, of course, does not have sole responsibility to conduct science on ecosystems and ecosystem processes in the U.S. EEZ, but it bears a large part of the responsibility for this research because of fishing’s large “footprint” on marine ecosystems. The challenge is worldwide, and the development of multispecies and ecosystem models since the pioneering work of Anderson and Ursin (1977), although considerable, has been notably slow (Sissenwine and Daan, 1991). Nevertheless, the development of multispecies models, some by NMFS scientists, is important and holds promise for future management applications (Hollowed et al., 2000a). So far, the models have not proved to have the predictive power required for most fisheries management. It is uncertain whether NMFS has the financial or personnel resources to respond to the challenge, although ecological and ecosystem issues are the source of a large fraction of the agency’s litigation problem. Therefore, it is important for NMFS to define its responsibilities for ecosystem research. There are pockets of expertise in NMFS to address ecological issues. For example, the agency has high-quality expertise in systematics, genetics, hydroacoustics, organism behavior, trophic ecology, multispecies modeling, fisheries oceanography, toxicology, and disease. Research conducted outside the agency also could be used to improve much of the ecological and ecosystem science in fisheries management. However, timely research on marine ecosystems to address water quality, habitats, trophic relationships, and threatened and endangered species needs to be coordinated with stock assessments to respond quickly to management needs. A recent NMFS report recommended that the regional FMCs develop fishery ecosystem plans (FEPs) for major fished ecosystems in each council region (NMFS, 1999). Regional FMCs and NMFS are responding to that recommendation, and plans for FEPs are being considered. If adopted, the FEPs will further challenge NMFS to conduct, interpret, and review ecosystem science in support of fisheries management. Part of the challenge will be to coordinate ecosystem science efforts effectively with other federal agencies, state agencies, and academic institutions. The call for broad ecosystem science would probably be less urgent if fewer fish stocks were overfished. Solutions to the overfishing problem

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Science and Its Role in the National Marine Fisheries Service would reduce the urgency (but not eliminate the need) for ecosystem science (NRC, 1999b). In the future, management may succeed in controlling fishing effort and capacity, and this would relieve stress on marine ecosystems. But in the short term, a multitude of fundamental biological and ecological studies and modeling approaches should be initiated to understand how ecosystems respond to heavy fishing pressure. New models should devote greater attention to predator-prey interactions, habitat needs, life-history variability among species, and the effects of variability in the environment, which magnify the uncertainty of conventional assessment models (NRC, 1998b). Performance: Perception and Reality Science is best pursued in an atmosphere where the objectivity required to interpret data and advance understanding can be achieved with minimal pressure from stakeholders, who often have vested interests in maintaining the status quo or wish to change the fisheries-management system. In fisheries, it is unrealistic and perhaps impossible to remove industry demands and management needs from the science process. NMFS and the regional FMCs are so tightly bound in the science-management process that it is difficult for NMFS to conduct objective, independent science. In recent years, environmentalists have increased pressure on the agency to conduct research that is beyond the scope of NMFS’s traditional stock assessment focus. The status of many overfished stocks requires that NMFS conduct quick and effective investigations and provide prompt interpretations. However, scientists and the scientific process do not function effectively under such pressures. Science tends to be careful and deliberate, which can give the impression of being “slow and unresponsive.” It is not surprising that NMFS is subject to criticism, given the circumstances within which it operates. Many of the perceived problems of NMFS science are related to the quality of stock assessment science and models that form the basis of decisions by managers on allocation and fishing effort. Yet, when challenged in litigation or in mandated independent reviews, the stock assessments usually stand up well to criticisms. From 1997 to March 2002, NMFS has lost only three cases where management actions were challenged on the basis of National Standard 2 (“Conservation and management measures shall be based on the best scientific information available”—see Appendix C) of the MSFCMA (NAPA, in press). The perception of inadequate stock assess

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Science and Its Role in the National Marine Fisheries Service ment science results as much from troubled relationships between NMFS and the industry as from the occasional errors in assessments that are exacerbated by regulations necessary to restore overfished stocks. In a recent issue of National Fisherman (2002), the editor repeats the oft-stated lament that “questionable science” from NMFS is the consequence of failing to “seek the everyday wisdom of fishermen.” The perception of poor science in stock assessments can obscure the reality that NMFS stock assessment science is generally good. In the broader arena of ecological and ecosystem science, there is a perception in the environmental community that NMFS is not conducting its science at a level or with the quality that is necessary to define fishing effects on habitats, biological communities, and ecosystems in a way that will allow achievement of the directives of the MSFCMA. The lack of necessary information hinders managers’ ability to regulate fishing to account for those concerns. In that regard, perception may be closer to reality. NMFS has been subject to litigation on ecosystem effects and in some instances has not done timely studies on environmental effects or essential fish habitats or on effects of bycatch on fisheries and ecosystems or, in several cases, has not conducted the science necessary to understand how fishing may affect threatened or endangered mammals, turtles, and seabirds. Even broader mandates probably will be required of NMFS as marine protected areas (MPAs) become more common in FMPs. NMFS is aware of its responsibility to learn about ecosystem-based management, and it has created the Ecosystem-Based Approach to Management Task Force of the Marine Fisheries Advisory Committee that held a workshop January 15-17, 2002. An example of a new responsibility in ecosystem science evolves from Presidential Executive Order 13158 (May 30, 2000, 65 Fed. Reg. 34909), which directs NOAA (through its National Ocean Service and NMFS line offices) and other agencies to develop and design networks of MPAs. The designated agencies are undertaking the task, but unless the scientific evaluations and modeling research in support of specific MPAs are excellent, it seems certain that lawsuits will be brought by both the fishing and environmental communities to challenge the scientific basis of designations and recommended implementations of MPAs.