Chesapeake Quarterly
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Scientist Assesses Bay's Fisheries

THERE ARE A NUMBER OF POPULAR BOOKS about the Chesapeake Bay by excellent writers, but few by excellent scientists. Ed Houde, perhaps the preeminent fishery scientist of his time and region, is one of the few Bay scientists of note who's tried to leave a nontechnical explanation of findings in their field, complete with hard-earned opinions about the fate and future of the fish species the Chesapeake is famous for.

You can read about those findings and opinions in a new book, Managing Chesapeake Fisheries: A Work in Progress, published by the Maryland Sea Grant College as part of its Chesapeake Perspectives series. His goal in writing the book, Houde says, was to help nonscientists understand the forces that cause fish stocks to rise and fall. Those forces make fisheries management complicated and controversial work, but not, according to Houde, hopeless work.

In his 30 years of work with the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, Houde has done pioneering work on well-studied species like striped bass and on less-studied species like alewives, anchovies, blueback herring, and menhaden. Much of his work on these species focused on the critical life stage when microscopic larvae become small, juvenile fish. In his research he was able to show that small changes in food supply, water quality, and habitat during those early transitional stages can have huge effects on the number of adult fish that eventually make up the population for these species. And the fate of these little-known forage fish in turn have large effects on the survival of more popular species like striped bass, bluefish, weakfish, white perch, croaker, and spot.

It was a set of findings, documented rigorously in dozens of papers and projects, that had a huge influence on the way scientists understand the life history and life changes for these fish and on the way fisheries managers try to regulate fishing pressure on these species.

His new book appears at a critical time when several important species are declining, several seem to be recovering, and a new philosophy is beginning to alter our traditional approaches to managing the Bay's fisheries. The new approach, "ecosystem-based fisheries management," represents a shift from single-species management, which focused narrowly on figuring out how fishermen could land the maximum harvest possible while still allowing the target species to replenish itself. As its name suggests, the fresh approach focuses first on preserving the structure and function of the ecosystem that surrounds and sustains each fish species under management.

It has been a slow slog toward acceptance for an approach that traces its roots back half a century or more to the writings of Aldo Leopold, the father of modern ecosystem-based wildlife management, and to the rise of systems ecology, with its focus on energy flows through entire ecosystems. "Ten years ago, except for some ecologists and a few fishery scientists, people basically dismissed ecosystem-based fisheries management," says Houde. "I think now everybody recognizes that this is the direction we are heading."

Among Bay fisheries currently in decline, the menhaden fishery could become "the poster child for ecosystem-based fisheries management," according to Houde. Fisheries managers are currently considering cutbacks in commercial harvesting in hopes of preserving menhaden for their "ecosystem services." The cutbacks could aid their recovery by increasing the number of spawners in coastal waters, but the real drivers for new recruitments are climate conditions in those offshore waters.

The experiment with menhaden cutbacks could prove a tough test for the ecosystem approach. "If menhaden spawn at the wrong time and in the wrong place," says Houde, "then physics, weather, and the climate are going to have a major effect on how many get into the Bay."

Another declining fishery, the historic oyster fishery of the Chesapeake Bay, may be lost, says Houde, despite all the current and long-standing efforts at restoration. According to Houde's take, oyster aquaculture may prove workable, but the recovery of the stock of native oysters is unlikely. "It is hard to think we are going to see a miraculous recovery of the oyster stock," says Houde.

He is a pessimist about the oyster, but not about the future of Bay fisheries in general. "I think management can play a big role in stabilizing fisheries and helping them to rebuild and recover," says Houde. As evidence that smart management can work, he cites the recovery of striped bass and, more recently, of blue crabs, two iconic Bay species that were rebuilt through tough, controversial management after decades of overfishing.

Is ecosystem-based fisheries management too complex — and too incomplete — to apply to a real-world fishery where jobs and profits are at stake? Not according to Houde. "We might not know all the connections and all the rate functions that describe predator-prey relations between all the fishes in a complex food web," he admits, "but we know enough that we can begin to take action." The key actions, he says, are four: Take a precautionary approach, don't allow fishing methods that destroy habitat, minimize bycatch, and take care not to catch threatened and endangered species.

Houde's forerunners in this narrow field of Bay scientists willing to write about their work in layman's language include W.K. Brooks from Johns Hopkins University, who wrote The Oyster: A Popular Summary of a Scientific Study back in 1891; R.V. Truitt, who wrote popular reports and books as founder of the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory; and Jerry R. Schubel, formerly with Johns Hopkins, who wrote The Living Chesapeake in 1981. It seems scientists willing to explain themselves and their work to the rest of us are still an endangered species.


Managing the Chesapeake's Fisheries: A Work in Progress. 2011. Edward D. Houde. 122 pp. Chesapeake Perspectives series from Maryland Sea Grant, College Park, Maryland. Soft cover, $12.95 (www.mdsg.umd.edu/store/books/cp); Kindle edition, $6.95 (www.amazon.com).

 
Ecosystem-Based Fisheries Management:
Tools For Progress

TO DEVELOP ECOSYSTEM-BASED FISHERIES MANAGEMENT plans for Chesapeake Bay species, managers need access to research-based information about topics as technical and diverse as recruitment patterns, food webs, predator-prey interactions, water quality, habitat, climate effects, and socioeconomic factors.

In 2008, a five-year Ecosystem-Based Fisheries Management Project was launched in hopes of developing the latest research information and the tools that could sustain an ecosystem approach to managing the Bay's fisheries. The effort was coordinated by Maryland Sea Grant, working in collaboration with the scientific community and the region's state and federal agencies, including the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the District of Columbia Department of the Environment, NOAA, and EPA. In all, more than 85 scientists, managers, and stakeholders collaborated on the project.

Teams of experts from within and beyond the Chesapeake region participated in a series of meetings facilitated by Maryland Sea Grant to explore how each of four key species (blue crabs, striped bass, menhaden, and the alosines group) function and interact in an ecosystem context. Maryland Sea Grant published the resulting papers as a set of in-depth Background and Issue Briefs for each of the four species. In addition, highlights of the findings were published in four eight-page Summary Briefs. Work on oysters will take place in the future.

All eight publications are now available in pdf format on the Maryland Sea Grant web site:
www.mdsg.umd.edu/store

 
Book Series on Kindle

Maryland Sea Grant's Chesapeake Perspectives series encourages researchers, scholars, and other thinkers to share their insights into the unique culture and ecology of the Chesapeake Bay. All four books in the series have recently been released as ebooks for Kindle. To order, visit www.amazon.com.

Chesapeake Environmentalism: Rethinking Culture to Strengthen Restoration and Resource Management, Michael Paolisso (Kindle, $4.95; soft cover, $9.95)

Heritage Matters: Heritage, Culture, History, and Chesapeake Bay, Erve Chambers (Kindle, $4.95; soft cover, $9.95)

Inquiry in a Culture of Consensus: Science and Management for the Chesapeake Bay, William Matuszeski (Kindle, $4.95; soft cover, $9.95)

Managing the Chesapeake's Fisheries: A Work in Progress, Edward D. Houde (Kindle, $6.95; soft cover, $12.95)

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