Guide Shows Gulf of Mexico Fishery Managers How to Take Big-Picture Approach

By considering ecosystem, economy, and other species, plans can safeguard nature and fishing

Guide Shows Gulf of Mexico Fishery Managers How to Take Big-Picture Approach
Spanish mackerel
Sunlight highlights a Spanish mackerel swimming in the Gulf of Mexico. Fishery ecosystem plans can help managers ensure robust fish populations and sustainable fishing of this and other species.
Charlie Shoemaker for The Pew Charitable Trusts

Successful football coaches don’t call plays in a vacuum. They consider a host of factors, including the score, field position, time on the clock, and how well their team is playing at the time. Successfully managing fish populations requires a similarly broad look at the field—that is, the ocean ecosystem. 

Like a football playbook, a fishery ecosystem plan (FEP) is a guidebook for fishery managers who want to adopt a more comprehensive way of overseeing fish and fishing. An FEP identifies ecosystem-level goals and objectives and lays out strategies that can then be applied to individual or multiple fisheries. And similar to how coaches use their playbooks, fishery managers can choose strategies from their FEP based on what’s going on in the ecosystem—from shifts in fishing rates and predator-prey balance to changes in ocean conditions. In fishery management, as in football, experts can study their results and adjust strategies for the future based on current science and past experience.

A 2020 paper written by three marine scientists who have worked on Gulf of Mexico fisheries issues serves as a guide to help fishery managers develop holistic FEPs. The Pew Charitable Trusts-funded paper, published in October 2020 in the Bulletin of Marine Science, illustrates how to design an FEP to more sustainably manage Gulf species, many of which make up significant and vital segments of the region’s economy.

Fishery managers who lack such a playbook are left to make decisions without the bigger picture in mind, an approach that is mostly reactive and largely doesn’t consider unintended consequences that can harm fish populations and lead to ecosystem imbalances. But by following the more-comprehensive, ecosystem-based fisheries management approach, managers are far more likely to make decisions that help sustain fisheries and their ecosystem for the long-term. When designed properly, FEPs are iterative and adaptive, with continuous participation from scientists, managers, and stakeholders. As new information comes in, changes are made to improve outcomes. 

Four steps to an FEP

The study authors proposed a four-step process to writing an FEP:

Step 1: Managers and stakeholders work together to identify the most important social, economic, biological, ecological, and physical characteristics of an ecosystem. Based on that input, scientists develop an agreed upon conceptual model, a complex flow chart, to illustrate the relative importance of each attribute (or characteristic) and the connections among them. The exercise and information help managers prioritize key goals based on known threats, such as excessive bycatch (unintentional catch of nontarget species) and harmful algal blooms. Creating the model also helps managers select key ecosystem-based indicators to show when threats reach critical levels. Think of an indicator this way: In humans, a body temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit is a key indicator of good health, and significant changes in that temperature trigger escalating needs for action. At 100 degrees, doctors typically recommend rest and fluids, but a fever of 104 usually requires immediate action.

The National Marine Fisheries Services’ Gulf Ecosystem Status Report identifies numerous ecosystem indicators—such as sea surface temperatures, forage fish abundance, and commercial landings—that can help managers determine if action is needed to thwart harm to fish populations. Indicators also can be used to measure progress toward management and ecosystem goals.

Step 2: Identify goals and objectives and prioritize key efforts. This begins with developing an action-oriented, long-term vision statement that focuses on common goals, priorities, and strategies. To turn the vision into action, managers should develop strategic objectives, such as maintaining healthy fish populations in the face of frequent red tides. Specific, measurable, and realistic objectives will help drive successful, adaptable management strategies. Including diverse stakeholder input and perspectives is highly important in this step. A 2019 study, led by University of Florida researcher David Chagaris, describes various challenges for fisheries management that could be addressed in FEPs for the Gulf region.

Step 3: Assess progress and select management strategies. Fishery managers choose how to measure progress by considering such things as fishery revenue, fish population abundance, and habitat suitability. Managers also set thresholds or other reference points, such as catch levels and bycatch limits, to help them judge when to take action to stay on course toward their goals. Lastly, managers analyze the system to test the strengths, weaknesses, and tradeoffs of their decisions.

Step 4: Develop, implement, and update the FEP. An FEP should not only guide decision-making but also highlight research and analysis needs. Plans should be adjustable based on new data and the outcomes of initial strategies and actions.

The paper’s authors used two case studies to illustrate how an FEP can be informed and implemented in the Gulf of Mexico. The first uses a plan for red grouper to show how managers could use an FEP to help develop strategies for a single species in the face of periodic harmful algal blooms. For example, the paper outlines the steps to set precautionary catch limits to address expected fish deaths from red tides based on the potential location, duration, and magnitude of the events. This single-species approach can be used for multiple species simultaneously.

The second illustrates how fishery managers could use computer-based models to monitor multiple environmental and ecological factors—for example, the ways that fisheries and ecosystems react to shifts in seawater temperature, including multispecies population increases or decreases, changes in food sources and predators, or large shifts in ocean conditions. Improved understanding of these effects and their timing can help managers make more informed decisions when setting rules, such as catch limits.

Fishery ecosystem plans aren’t official policy, but can guide managers to use the latest science in decision-making and lead to rules and actions that promote sustainable fishing, a growing coastal economy, and healthy ecosystems. A plan for the Gulf of Mexico would safeguard the long-term health of the world’s ninth-largest body of water and an economic engine that supports hundreds of southeastern communities.

Holly Binns directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ efforts to protect ocean life in the Gulf of Mexico and the U.S. Caribbean.

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