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Volume 2, Number 4
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A Fisheries Ecosystem Plan for the Bay

By Merrill Leffler

striped bass foodweb

This foodweb of striped bass showing the interrelatedness of species gives an idea of just how complex one small part of the ecosystem can be. Redrawn from a draft of the Fisheries Ecosystem Plan.

"It's the habitat, stupid!" reads the poster overlooking Margaret McBride's desk. A fisheries scientist at NOAA's Chesapeake Bay Office, McBride chairs the technical advisory panel of regional scientists and managers that was charged to develop a Fisheries Ecosystem Plan (FEP) for the Chesapeake Bay. Ed Houde, a researcher at UMCES Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, joined as co-chair of the FEP Panel. The soon-to-be released plan sets out a comprehensive strategy for new approaches to managing fisheries in the Chesapeake - approaches, McBride believes, that could help prevent the kinds of devastating losses that have occurred in the Bay's oyster, sturgeon and shad fisheries.

"The Bay has an open access fishery and everyone is entitled to fish," she says. "But everyone has to recognize as well that there's not an inexhaustible supply of fisheries resources and that there are things we have to do to help ensure productivity." Traditional ways of managing fisheries have largely focused on controlling landings through numbers of regulations governing seasonal fishing, creel and size limits, gear restrictions or a combination of these and other regulations. But controls on fishing are not enough, she says. "If we're going to handicap nature by degrading the environment that we want species to thrive in, then we have to rethink our strategies."

The Fisheries Ecosystem Plan begins with the premise that if Bay fisheries are to be conserved, then fishery management plans will have to account for factors often overlooked in the past - while these include the role that habitat and predator-prey relationships play in promoting sustainable landings, they also include social and economic considerations and "externalities," for example, climate impacts that may occur unpredictably.

The idea of an FEP for the Chesapeake had its inception in 1996 legislation aimed at ocean fisheries. Under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, as it was named, Congress directed NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to examine how regional management councils were applying ecosystem principles to managing coastal waters. The country's eight councils help set fisheries policy in coastal waters from 3 to 200 miles offshore. NMFS appointed an Ecosystem Principles Advisory Panel, whose members came from industry, academia, conservation organizations and fishery management agencies - Houde was a member of that panel.

The NOAA Bay Office, together with the Bay Program, first brought scientists and managers together for a workshop in 2000 to examine the feasibility of an ecosystem-based plan for the Bay. Such a plan had promise for Bay fisheries, workshop participants concluded, because the Chesapeake Bay Program's restoration efforts are geared to significantly improving water quality and habitat. "The waters of the Chesapeake Bay are not federally managed so there was no mandate driving us to do this," says McBride. "Rather we felt that an FEP was the best way to try to improve our fisheries here, and at the same time provide a pilot that would facilitate FEP development nationally."

The FEP Panel appropriated the NMFS panel's approach by focusing on key issues, among them, defining the geographic extent of the Bay ecosystem, producing conceptual food web models for commercial species that include detailed descriptions of predator and prey species at each life history stage, assessing the role of predictive uncertainty, habitat requirements, identifying the available long-term monitoring data and examining social and economic dimensions of ecosystem-based management of Bay fisheries.

"This is a strategic plan, not a tactical one," says McBride. "It doesn't specify step by step how resource management agencies are to undertake ecosystem-based fisheries management. In many cases the particular steps will need to be developed by managers." Rather, she says, the plan lays out what we know now, what additional information managers will need to know and the kind of research and monitoring needed to provide that information in order to help managers and stakeholders balance conservation and removals, whether in commercial harvesting or recreational and charterboat fishing.

McBride doesn't see immediate, major changes in fisheries management. "For example," she says, "multispecies management is the direction we're moving toward, but all the necessary tools are not yet in place." Fisheries management decisions in the states will still be on a species-by-species basis, she adds, but they will now begin taking additional considerations into account before they make those decisions. Our immediate focus is the Chesapeake Bay, but we have to go beyond that to manage within an ecosystem context, because many species are not just relegated to the Bay - striped bass, eel, menhaden are coastal species that use the Bay at different life stages. For such species, management actions must be coordinated between Bay and coastal jurisdictions, taking all life history stages into account.

These changes, says Nancy Butowski of Maryland's Department of Natural Resources, will be reflected in the fishery management plans as "we begin to assess how to best incorporate them."

What the FEP will do is provide guidance for an ecosystem-based approach to fisheries management; it will also direct the types of research and monitoring that need to be undertaken, McBride says. "We envision it to be a living document, one that will evolve as we learn more about fisheries within the context of the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem, and as management needs change." A major point, she emphasizes, is that ensuring viable fish habitat is not just a fisheries management issue, and certainly is not something that fishery managers can do alone. "The kind of management we're talking about," McBride says, "entails a paradigm shift: How do we change the way we do business to not have a negative impact on fish habitat?"

To find out more about the Fisheries Ecosystem Plan, see the NOAA Chesapeake Bay swebsite at noaa.chesapeakebay.net/fepworkshop/netfep.htm.

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