It’s All About the Ecosystem: Experts Urge Pacific Fisheries Council to Take a More Holistic Approach

The catchphrase for President Clinton's 1992 campaign framed the main issue and probably helped win the election: “It's the economy, stupid.” Today, in the California Current, it's all about the ecosystem, or more accurately, it's all about the neglect of the ecosystem.

Species in the California Current and the food webs that connect them have become increasingly vulnerable to fishing and climate change. However, decision makers don't know much about what's going on, and they've done precious little to find out.

“A great many fish populations and the human communities that depend upon them are in a state of crisis because of a combination of factors,” according to biologists Robert Francis and John Field, in a 2006 paper.

Fishing has depleted many long-lived and slow growing groundfish stocks, and obligatory rebuilding plans suggest that some could take decades to centuries to recover to target levels, Francis and Field wrote in their paper.

Francis and Field urged the Portland-based Pacific Fishery Management Council to consider the ecosystem's needs as much more than just an afterthought.

Warning signs are everywhere. Consider, for instance, seabirds. A major indicator of marine ecosystem health, seabirds have declined significantly, including species that migrate from afar or that breed locally.

The Point Reyes Bird Observatory's 2005 report, California Current Marine Bird Conservation Plan, says that of 41 bird species that breed in the California Current, 34 have drawn varying levels concern from government agencies from Mexico to Canada. Of 53 bird species that commonly migrate to the California Current from all over the Pacific Rim, seven are on the World Conservation Union's Red List of Threatened Species. The list of troubled seabird species includes the endangered brown pelican and the sooty shearwater, a migrant from New Zealand that is down 75 percent over recent decades.

Many of the California Current's main cash fisheries — whiting, salmon, tunas and rockfish — are also in trouble. All but 25.1 percent of the whiting has been depleted, pushing it dangerously close to an “overfished” condition. Fishery managers say a stock is “overfished” if fewer than 25 percent of a baseline population remains. The whiting was overfished earlier this decade but recovered slightly.

Further declines now appear likely, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. Seven rockfish species are also depleted, and almost every major salmon run is on the U.S. endangered species list.

Where fisheries are depleted, seabirds can suffer. In the California Current, some 22 fisheries directly target the same fish species that seabirds consume. In some ecosystems, seabirds consume as much as 30 percent of the young fish.

Under global warming scenarios, scientists believe a sea level rise can drown nests or breeding habitat on islands and rookeries. Warming ocean temperatures can also reduce the amount of food in the water and force fish to live elsewhere if they can.

Scientists say fishery managers in the California Current have failed to understand these changes, given their lack of data, much less respond to them. When it makes decisions on catch limits, Pacific council admits that it does not consider the food needs of seabirds or marine mammals like whales or sea lions. The potential impacts of climate change have made no impact on council decisions. The council says it plans to do become a champion of ecosystem-based management, once funds become available, but soon will continue to manage each commercially valuable species one by one, almost as if they are alone in the sea.

In the early part of this decade, the Pew Oceans Commission and the U.S. Commission on Oceans both recommended that the eight regional fishery management councils manage ecosystems, rather than single species. Last year, when Congress reauthorized the nation's major ocean fisheries law, it insisted on an ecosystem-based approach. The Pacific council says it will develop ecosystem management plans, but says it has no funds to pay for it.

But, as we will see, recent developments suggest the council's commitment to an ecosystem-based management may not be entirely sincere.

An idea as old as the hills

Biologists Francis, a retired professor at the University of Washington, and Field, a scientist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, advocate taking the ecosystem approach rather than the current system of managing for single species.

Ecosystem approaches mean different things to different people, but as Francis and Field note, the “underlying concept is as old as the hills.” Managers of marine fisheries must take into greater consideration everything from climate change to the role of humans as both predators and competitors in their hunt for food, they say.

The traditional approach, and the one taken by the Pacific council, is to emphasize production. The council tries to maintain fish populations as close as possible to “the maximum amount of surplus production, or maximum sustainable yield.” Usually that means removing 60 percent of any single species from the ocean.

When the council determines maximum sustainable yield, it does not consider the needs of other species in the food web. The Pacific council, which has responsibility for managing ocean fisheries, has published volumes of information on single species, but has never even tried to evaluate the needs of the ecosystem.

The council has talked about drawing up ecosystem-based fishery management plans, but claims it lacks the funding to begin working on them. Other councils have embraced the ecosystem approach, including councils in Hawai`i and Alaska. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council in Alaska publishes a yearly “Ecosystem Considerations” report on the health of the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska. It also has developed what it calls a “fishery ecosystem plan.”

These documents evaluate the marine ecosystems and guide decisions. The Western Pacific Fishery Management Council in Hawai`i has published a fishery ecosystem plan, but the document represents little more than old plans with a new cover. The Pacific council has done neither of these.

It has been extremely sensitive to fishing communities and fish companies in their call for increased harvests, especially in the wake of economically painful decisions over the last decade to reduce fishing on depleted species.

There's also a gnawing fear among fishers that ecosystem-based management could cost them more jobs or income.

Others point out that ecosystem- based management would lead to greater sustainability for all species, larger harvests in the long run and provide a buffer against climate change.

The fishery councils are dominated by fishing interests, including recreational and commercial fishers, government fishery agencies, and seafood processors. While its meetings are open to anyone who wants to testify, its decisions are made are almost exclusively by industry insiders in both the private and public sectors.

That does not mean that the Pacific council vote for its members' pocketbooks every time. In fact, the council has voted to close areas and seasons for conserving the depleted rockfish. However, the council took some of its conservation actions on behalf of rockfish only after it was ordered to do so by the federal courts.

The Pacific council's record includes the designation of 500,000 square miles of essential fish habitat, where bottom trawling is banned - though other types of fishing are allowed. While many fishers strongly oppose marine reserves, some fishing groups have acknowledged the potential benefit of ecosystem planning, such as the creation of marine reserves where all types of fishing are not allowed. While marine reserves reduce the size of fishing grounds, they can also benefit fishers.

“What the science has shown is that generally there are more fish, or at least resident fish, and they tend to be larger, when fishing is restricted or prohibited within these areas,” says Zeke Grader, Executive Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations (PCFFA), the west coast's largest trade association of commercial fishing families.

Scientists have found that a marine reserve in the California Current may be most valuable for role as protection for large, aging female rockfish that have been shown to produce by far the most offspring. Fishers traditionally target these fish because of their high value at the fish market.

Problems that plague the changing ecosystem are likely to persist or get worse if policy-makers fail to understand the changes and fail to plan accordingly. If the Pacific council fails to consider the ecosystem's needs, other government agencies are bound to step in and develop ecosystem plans in the absence of council action. Indeed, that's already happening.

A turf battle at the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary

While the Pacific fishery council says it can't afford to develop ecosystem-based plans, it nevertheless has found the time and money to create new, experimental and potentially damaging fisheries, such as those in the controversial longlining proposals in sea turtle conservation areas.

Then there's the council's longstanding turf battle with National Marine Sanctuaries and its marine reserves. The five National Marine Sanctuaries that have been created in the region over the last several years have not created any no-fishing marine reserves in their waters.

The idea that another government agency would regulate fishing within the Pacific council's turf has drawn the council's wary eye at least since 2001.

In August 2007, the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, near Santa Barbara, created nine new marine protection zones in federal waters are the islands, including eight that allow no fishing and another that allows only limited harvest of fish. The decision expanded a network of marine reserves created by the state in 2002 by designating 11 no-fishing marine reserves and 2 marine conservation areas where some fishing is allowed.

The total network size will be more than 240 square miles encompassing nearly a quarter of the sanctuary’s waters through. Fishing in accordance with normal state and federal fishing regulations will be allowed in the remaining 78 percent of the sanctuary. The Channel Islands network of reserves is now the largest in the United States outside of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, where the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument is the largest marine conservation area in the world, encompassing 137,797 square miles in the Pacific.

The Pacific council argued that it alone, and not the National Marine Sanctuary program, has the authority to regulate fishing. The council's proposed rules, issued in December 2005, banned only bottom trawling in the reserves, but did not prohibit fishing that targeting species found in midwater areas.

Marine resources around the Channel Islands, such as kelp forest ecosystems, have declined under pressure from a variety of factors, including commercial and recreational fishing, changes in oceanographic conditions and increased levels of pollution. The sanctuary hopes that marine reserves can help to rebuild depleted fish populations, reduce bycatch and discards, and reduce known and as-yet unknown ecosystem effects of fishing.

In a creport issued last December, the council said that the Channel Island controversy has escalated conflicts over fishing regulations in sanctuaries.

“Because of this controversy, the PFMC has begun dialog for the planning and future implementation of ecosystem-based fishery management plans to prevail in its fishery management authority within the NMS system on the West Coast.”

In recent years, the Pacific council has lobbied Congress to strip National Marine Sanctuaries program from all authority to ban fishing.

For example, it has challenged the authority of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary to create a network of marine reserves. The Pacific council recently approved a sea turtle-killing longline fishery for areas inside and outside the Monterey Bay sanctuary. However, another federal agency, NMFS, overruled that decision.

Western Governors Sign Ocean Health Pact

Oregon and Washington have joined California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in a call for a sweeping coastwide collaboration on protecting and restoring marine waters. In September 2006, the governors of three states signed the “West Coast governors' agreement on ocean health,” which calls on the states to develop regional marine protection priorities.

The governors' action plan, released in draft form in September, calls on the states to collaborate on climate change and ecosystem-based management issues, as well to continue to oppose offshore oil and gas development.

In September, a Pacific council advisory committee could hardly mask its concern that the governor's might have veered to closely onto the council's turf.

“It appears to be an effort to emulate what has already been occurring with fishery management for many years,” the council's Groundfish Advisory Panel said in a written statement. “We are hopeful that it is not an attempt to usurp a collaborative process that has been successfully prosecuted for a long period of time.”

California emerged as a global leader in the creation of new marine reserves when voters approved the state Marine Life Protection Act in 1999. The state created its own network of reserves in the Channel Islands in 2002, and in 2007 created a network of 29 reserves on its central coast in 2007. It is now working on the development of potential reserve sites on its north central coast, from Point Arena in Mendocino County to Pigeon Point in San Mateo County.

The state of Washington this summer began accepting nominations for new marine reserves in Puget Sound. But in Oregon, a committee known as the Ocean Policy Advisory Council has been working on marine protection issues since 2001 but has yet to propose a single reserve.

Communities are also getting involved. For example, projects to develop local ecosystem-based management plans have been launched in the San Juan Islands, Washington; Port Orford, Oregon; and Humboldt Bay, Elkhorn Slough, Morro Bay, and Ventura, California.

The western governors have called for the development of a West Coast ecosystem-based management network during 2008. In September 2007, the governors issued a draft “action plan” which available at their web site, www.westcoastocean,gov.

The governors have proposed a trust fund to pay for their plan.

“This is the kind of leadership our region needs in terms ocean management, protection, investment and recovery,” said Paul Engelmeyer of Yachats, Ore., statewide conservation representative on the state Ocean Policy Advisory Council and manager of an Audubon wildlife sanctuary at Ten Mile Creek on the Oregon Coast.

Federal fishery council members rip Oregon’s ecosystem study

In August 2007, the state of Washington created its second state aquatic reserve in Puget Sound, Cypress Island the last largely undeveloped island in the San Juan Islands.

Protecting a “unique mosaic of state-owned uplands, tidelands, and bedlands,” a new management plan protects more than 11,000 acres of the island's upland conservation areas and marine aquatic reserve. They will be managed will be managed for the protection of the island's outstanding terrestrial and marine ecological systems, scenic value, cultural resources and habitat for threatened, endangered, and sensitive species.

The island received its name when early explorers mistook the tree for a cypress. Critics of marine reserves often contend that are not squarely based on science.

One big problem is the lack of science. The amount of knowledge about the impacts of commercial fisheries on the ocean ecosystem is relatively sparse, scientists say. But sometimes, political leaders do not welcome the advent of new science.

This year, a significant peer-reviewed study was published that expanded what we know about the effects of bottom trawling on seafloor habitats. But instead of greeting this new science with enthusiasm, a member of the Pacific council and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife attempted to stifle the report.

Mark A. Hixon of Oregon State University and Brian N. Tissot of Washington State University found significantly more species on untrawled seafloors, an important but not unusual finding for policy makers interested in knowing the impacts of these fisheries. Hixon and Tissot closely examined Coquille Bank, a muddy seafloor about 40 miles off the Oregon Coast, between Bandon and Cape Blanco, up to about 360 meters deep.

“We observed 23 percent more fish over untrawled compared to trawled seafloors, and recorded 27 fish species on untrawled bottoms, but only 19 species on trawled seafloors,” Hixon and Tissot write in their peer-reviewed paper, published in December 2006 in the Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology.

In untrawled areas, they found such species as sea pens, ratfish, sablefish, ronquil, slender sole, and poacher. In trawled areas, they found mostly species known as mobile scavengers that may aggregate along trawl-door tracks.

Among the species most directly reduced by trawling on deep mud seafloors were sea pens, the research found. Also known as sea whips, these are soft-bodied, erect organisms that anchor in the seafloor and project upwards as much as 3 feet, forming forest-like stands. Sea pens, which can live up to 50 years, were nearly absent on trawled bottoms.

The study appeared to be the first to examine trawling impacts on the muddy seafloors commonly found beneath the California Current.

“In the region managed by the Pacific Fisheries Management Council — federal waters off Washington, the state is working with the Samish tribe on the development of another marine reserve to the southeast of Cypress Island, at Fidalgo Bay.

The state's first aquatic reserve, at Maury Island near Tacoma, was designated in 2004.

Soon, the state expects to add Cherry Point to its list of reserves. Meanwhile the state has identified about two dozen other sites in Puget Sound that would protect important marine habitats with high conservation benefits. The Aquatic Reserves Program is requesting addition proposals for new aquatic reserves on state-owned aquatic lands.

The process for proposing a site for protection involves public or private groups or individuals submitting a letter of intent.

In an area just south of Monterey Bay, Calif., Hixon and Tissot examined a lightly trawled area near-shore, and a heavily trawled area further out. Their study, published in 1998, found higher densities of epifaunal species — species that are attached to the bottom, like sea pens.

Until the Hixon and Pissot study, they said “virtually nothing was known of bottom-trawl effects on the predominant trawled habitat off the U.S. west coast: mud seafloors of the outer continental shelf. Seafloors off Oregon have been subjected to higher bottom-trawling effort than those off Washington and California.”

Their findings squared with other research showing that “bottom trawling has substantial impacts” on stable deep mud habitats like those at Coquille Bank. “This ecosystem shows striking differences between trawled and untrawled areas,” said Tissot, an expert in seafloor organisms. “Areas that had obviously not been trawled were covered by forests of sea pens and other marine life, and the trawled areas looked like a desert, crisscrossed with trawl tracks.”

After Hixon and Tissot published their study, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife responded with sharp criticism in a review.  “The evidence presented in this paper was inconclusive and should have been couched in language to address statistical and sample comparison problems,” the ODFW review said.

ODFW cited several differences between the untrawled and trawled sites, and other alleged inaccuracies, that led it to question the study. “Staff determined that this paper is not adequate for the purposes making conclusions and should not be used to drive management decisions,” the agency said. “Other research by other authors which is cited in this paper offers more solid results of trawl effects on fish and invertebrate assemblages on habitat.”

Frank Warrens, a member of the Pacific Fishery Management Council, ripped the peer-reviewed study. “When industry members reviewed the study based on very limited sample size and observation duration,” he said in an email, “they turned up several errors and disputable data in the study that will need to be reviewed further.  In short the study is not ready for prime time.”

Warrens acknowledged that he represents “the fisheries side of the issue.”

In response, Hixon and Tissot defended the study and its results, denied the existence of any errors, and highlighted the lack of cooperation they received. They requested data regarding the efforts of trawlers but received no information. Oregon Sea Grant, a state agency, rejected two small grants for mapping seafloor trawling tracks.

The authors said the “overly negative review” by the state “will serve only to further entrench denial within the Oregon trawl industry regarding the widely documented adverse impacts of bottom trawling on seafloor habitat. We invite everyone concerned to set aside any assumption that the effects of trawling off Oregon are somehow substantially different from those documented elsewhere in the world.

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