Managers and politicians need advice about risks and consequences


Towards a fisheries management more in sync with the ecosystem

Ecosystem-based management for the Baltic Sea fisheries has long been a mainly theoretical vision. But now a group of dedicated scientists are about to turn theory into practice.

Text: Henrik Hamrén

Ecosystem-based is probably the most common term in modern fisheries management today. It appears in most rules, regulations and guidelines for European fisheries management.

But in practice, it has proven to be very difficult to implement.

European fisheries rely on the fact that politicians decide how much fish can be harvested. These decisions are based on scientific advice (mainly from ICES) that stem from numerous analyses and assessments.

Find ways to include environmental, ecosystem and socio-economic components

But how do you assess an entire ecosystem? How do you measure how much one factor affects another when all factors are connected? And how do you make a place for such assessments in the traditional structures of current management?

An ongoing regional scientific project, initiated by Stockholm University’s Baltic Sea Centre, suggests that researchers may be closer to finding answers to these questions than previously thought.

– ICES is working hard to find ways to present more ecosystem-based fishery advice to decision-makers. The concept we are suggesting is a step forward in that direction. The basic idea is to find ways to include environmental, ecosystem and socio-economic components in the fishery advice”, says Maciej Tomczak, fishery researcher at Stockholm University’s Baltic Sea Centre.

Now a part of the ICES structure and scientific community. 

In the summer of 2014, Tomczak and Professor Christian Möllman from Hamburg University invited some 20 reputable scientists to the Askö Laboratory in the Stockholm archipelago. Their aim was to begin the development of an operational tool for more ecosystem-based advice and assessment. The project was named DEMO (Demonstration Exercise for Integrated Ecosystem Assessment and Advice of Baltic Sea fish stocks).

Three years later, the project has changed its name to ICES WKDEICE (ICES Workshop on Developing Integrated Advice for Baltic Sea Ecosystem-based Fisheries Management), which means it is now a part of the ICES structure and scientific community.

But the vision remains the same. And according to Tomczak, the efforts of the project are finally paying off:

– The fact that we can work under the ICES umbrella I see as a success. It enables us to really bring this idea forward much faster.

Fishing is also an economic and social activity

It all boils down to giving advisors and managers the right tools, so that they in turn can manage fisheries more “in sync” with society, the environment and the ecosystem.  

– Firstly, we already know that the Baltic fish stocks are heavily affected not only by fishing but also by, for instance, eutrophication and climate change. Secondly, we know that fisheries affect not only the targeted fish stocks, but also other species and marine organisms, says Tomczak, and continues:

– Thirdly, fishing is also an economic and social activity that affects the food supply, the processing industry, and the livelihood of fishermen and their families.

Provide managers with more general information and advice

All this makes fishing a very complex activity to manage, he says, and having scientific advice that only delivers single species catch options and descriptions is simply not enough.

– Our managers need more general information and advice to be able to make well-informed and wise decisions, says Tomczak.

We want to make it useful in real life management

What perhaps separates WKDEICE from other similar scientific projects about ecosystem-based fisheries is thatit is very focused on turning theory into something that can actually be used in practice.

– Ecosystem-based fisheries management has been a popular concept for quite some time in the science community. But it is often presented in rather theoretical terms and not very concretely. I think what made ICES interested in our work is that we’re really aiming at making this concept operational. We want to make it useful in real life management, says Tomczak. 

Another likely difference is  that the project has built its concept on ICES’ existing advice process, instead of presenting something completely new and untested. Recently, the team developed a schematic outline (see figure above), showing where and how to actually submit their so-called Integrated Advice Evaluations (IAE).

wkdeice advice process1

(Download the illustration as pdf.)

– The IAE places the ICES single species advice in a much broader ecological and socio-economic context. Depending on the specific stock situation and what kind of advice is needed, you can include other species and environmental and ecosystem information but also socio-economic considerations, says Tomczak.

This can be done, for instance, by preparing relevant environmental and ecosystem data on things like anoxic bottoms, salinity levels and climate effects.

– It could also provide a set of ‘what if-scenarios’ under different environmental conditions to show what the consequences of taking particular advice would be for other species or parts of the ecosystem, he says.

Another major difference this has with the current advice structure is the evaluations and risk assessments that are to complement the final advice. These make it possible to evaluate different types of advice based on a societal context by using economic data.

Can lead to improvements in the state of the fish stocks and ecosystems

One of the main features is a new concept called ecologically-constrained Maximum Economic Yield (eMEY), developed by Rudi Voss at the University of Kiel. This uses a bio-economic model in which economic considerations are explicitly included to calculate what the optimal catch would be, given some ecological constraints such as stock sizes.   

– We think it is important that managers and politicians are also advised about the risks and the consequences of their decisions on different levels. That way they are better equipped to create sound management decisions and plans that can lead to improvements in the state of the fish stocks and ecosystems – but also to more sustainable and profitable fisheries, says Tomczak.

There is still much development and testing to be done before this kind of advice can be implemented and operational in the current process. And according to Tomczak there is also the issue of how far the changing of the advisory process can be driven before it becomes counterproductive to its original purposes. 

– One must remember that complexity at some point leads to uncertainty. Therefore, it is important to find a balance between the amount of information included in the process and the best possible quality of the final advice, he says.

Maciej Tomzcak

Maciej Tomczak

Fisheries and marine ecologist