National Geographic
Menu

A Better Way to Protect Our Ocean Ecosystems

Over the past 30 years, we’ve made tremendous scientific gains in understanding how marine ecosystems work while monitoring the impacts of fishing and other extractive activities on the health of our oceans. What’s more, the application of new science, along with critical reforms of key laws and regulations, is leading to more effective policies to manage America’s ocean fisheries.

Gray snappers at a reef off the Florida Keys.
Gray snappers at a reef off the Florida Keys.
Credit: Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Staff

Because of these improvements, we are making progress toward ending overfishing in U.S. ocean waters and have one of the most advanced marine resource management programs in the world. Success stories, as I’ve detailed in previous articles, span our coasts. Atlantic sea scallop, Gulf of Mexico red grouper, and Pacific lingcod are just a few examples of once-depleted U.S. fish populations that have been rebuilt.

Yet too often, federal managers and policymakers approach these issues by considering only one species at a time, rather than looking at the big picture. This approach fails to make use of a wealth of knowledge that scientists have gained in recent decades. We now know, for instance, that fishing for one species can affect the larger marine food web, and as the International Panel on Climate Change reported this week, rising temperatures are another pressure affecting the health of fish populations and their habitats.

We can and must do better. It’s time that decision-makers and federal fisheries managers pursue broader policy solutions that will not only help restore individual species but also promote healthy and robust marine ecosystems—an approach known within scientific circles as ecosystem-based fisheries management.

This will require an array of integrated tools and policies that:

  • Keep forage fish populations abundant enough to support the larger fish, marine mammals, birds, and other ocean wildlife that depend on them as a food source.
  • Protect the habitats that fish depend on for shelter, reproduction, and growth.
  • Reduce the incidental catch of nontarget species, a problem known as bycatch.
  • Reverse the mindset of “fish first, ask questions later.”
  • Ensure that fishery management decisions are guided by ecosystem plans instead of on a single species of fish without regard to the health of other species, their common habitat, or impacts on the broader marine environment.

It will also require support from our nation’s leaders to continue the scientific research we need to develop an even better understanding of how fish species relate to one another and to their surrounding marine ecosystems. This will help ensure that management decisions for U.S. fisheries are based on science, not regional or partisan politics, and promote the restoration and maintenance of healthy and resilient ocean ecosystems.

In the coming year, a number of important policy decisions could have a profound impact on the future direction of U.S. fisheries management. They will include a national debate on congressional reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, our nation’s primary fisheries law; revisions of national rules that guide fisheries management; and changes to important regional policies that are currently under consideration in fisheries management councils around the country.

To help inform these discussions, I’m kicking off a special series of articles, titled “The ABCs of Ecosystem-Based Fisheries Management.” It will explore, as the title suggests, the benefits of a broader fisheries management approach that considers the health of marine ecosystems as a whole. I’ll conclude by taking a closer look at upcoming fishery policy debates worth watching as 2014 unfolds, and exploring the potential stakes for those who depend upon healthy and vibrant ocean ecosystems as a source of commerce, sustenance, and recreation.

Here’s a list of upcoming articles:

  • Part I—A better way to protect our ocean ecosystems 
  • Part II—Forage fish: The oceans’ little heroes
  • Part III—Reducing and minimizing bycatch
  • Part IV—Protecting essential fish habitat—homes and nurseries
  • Part V—Starting smart
  • Part VI—Planning for the whole ecosystem

Comments

  1. John Starmer
    University of Florida
    April 12, 9:31 am

    Look forward to seeing the upcoming reports The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act supports ecosystems based fisheries management but the implementation has been uneven. The Western Pacific Fisheries Management Councils “Ecosystem” plan is essentially the previous species-based plans in a rebranded format. Hopefully the reauthorization process will take steps to move toward a more holistic and ecologically based ecosystems plan requirements.

  2. Monty Hawkins
    Maryland Coast
    April 11, 7:42 am

    Using rock, not shell, for estuarine oyster-reef restoration can turn the Mid-Atlantic’s ocean waters blue again; can restore marlin to their historical range. Success has finally begun.
    To restore marine habitat where “Shelter, Reproduction & Growth” occurred in fishing’s history demands we inventory what remains & discover what went missing.
    There’s been no discovery of nearshore hardbottom corals in the Mid-Atlantic–the corals in 70 feet, not 70 fathoms; yet recreational catch data no one believes is used like a club.
    We know stern-towed gears are capable of destroying seafloor habitat. For over a half-century they did just that with the worst damage in the 1960s & 70s.
    Assertions of ecosystem restoration with no knowledge of habitat’s past are just noise.
    Incredible progress awaits.

  3. Doug Coupar, AYG Marine
    South Florida
    April 9, 4:12 pm

    This is a great summary of integrated solutions to sustainable fisheries.
    Ecosystem health consists of multiple components that have traditionally been considered separately. Lee Crockett’s call for a “big picture” approach to fisheries is correct.
    The scientists know this, but the challenge involves developing the leadership necessary, at the highest levels of management.