, Volume 6, Issue 2, pp 139-164

Concepts and issues in marine ecosystem management

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Abstract

Ecosystem management means different things to different people, but the underlying concept is similar to that of the long-standing ethic of conservation. Current interest in marine ecosystem management stems from concerns about overexploitation of world fisheries and the perceived need for broader perspectives in fisheries management. A central scientific question is whether the effects of harvesting (top down) or changes in the physical environment (bottom up) are responsible for major changes in abundance.

Historically, ecology, fisheries biology, oceanography, fisheries management and the fishing industry have gone somewhat separate ways. Since the 1980s, increasing attention has been given to multispecies aspects of fisheries, the linkages between oceanography and fish abundance and more holistic approaches to fisheries management.

Sorting out the causes and effects of fluctuations in fish abundance is complicated by the lack of reliability of fisheries statistics. Discards, dishonesty and the inherent logistic difficulties of collecting statistics all combine to confuse interpretation. The overcapacity of fishing fleets and their unrestricted use are widely recognized as a contributing cause to overfishing and declines in fish stocks in many parts of the world.

Ecosystem management, as shorthand for more holistic approaches to resource management, is, from a fisheries management perspective, centred on multispecies interactions in the context of a variable physical and chemical environment. Broader perspectives include social, economic and political elements which are best considered pragmatically as a part of the context of fisheries management.

Objectives in marine ecosystem management are varied. From a biological perspective, an underlying principle of management is commonly assumed to be a sustained yield of products for human consumption. Whether that should be taken to mean that the yield should always be of the same products is less certain. Fishing commonly changes the relative abundance of species of fishes. Thus, a biological objective should specify the species mix that is desired.

Concern for the maintenance of global diversity has generated a substantial literature on threatened and endangered species. In general, it has not been considered likely that marine fish species could be rendered extinct and greatest attention has been given to marine mammals, sea birds and sea turtles. The provision of marine parks and sanctuary areas are obvious first steps in providing a measure of protection, at least for the less widely ranging species.

Related to the current concepts of ecosystem management are expressions such as ecosystem health and ecosystem integrity which are given a wide range of different meanings, none of which are readily translated into operational language for resource management. These and similar expressions are best assessed as rhetorical devices. The essential components of ecosystem management are sustainable yield, maintenance of biodiversity and protection from the effects of pollution and habitat degradation.

Theory for marine ecosystem management has a long history in fisheries and ecological literature. Ecological models such as Lotka-Volterra equations, ECOPATH, trophic cascades and chaos theory do not give practical guidance for management. Fleet interaction and multispecies virtual population analysis models hold more promise for fisheries managers.

Alaska provides particular opportunities for developing new concepts in fisheries management. Statistics of catch are good, stock assessments are at the state-of-the-art level and management has been prudent. Debate is active on the causes of substantial changes in abundance of many species including marine mammals, because substantial changes in the fisheries have been accompanied by major changes in oceanographic conditions.

As elsewhere, the resultant changes may be a consequence of top-down and bottom-up effects. The bottom part is beyond human control, and ecosystem management is centred on managing the top-down or fisheries component in the context of special measures of protection for particular species.

Whether that is a realistic goal depends in part on how much special protection is to be afforded to which species. Marine mammals, for example, are given high priority for special protection, but like fisheries they too may have significant roles in shaping the structure of marine ecosystems. Eventually, ecosystem management must come to grips with the question of how much protection of particular species is desirable in achieving optimal use of living marine resources.