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Fisheries - The Ecosystem Approach

Author: Deon Nel ~ WWF-South Africa & Lynne Shannon ~ Marine and Coastal Management

( Article Type: Overview )

The evolution of ecosystem-based fisheries management

Ecosystem-based fisheries management is a relatively recent concept that has slowly taken formal shape over the past 30 years. In the past fisheries management relied almost exclusively on a single-species approach. This entailed calculating the Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) for an individual fish stock. The MSY is greatest harvest that can be taken from a self-regenerating stock of animals year after year, while maintaining the average size of the stock. Although it was probably always appreciated to some degree, scientists began to express their concern about the need to take into account the knock-on effects that the harvesting of a commercial species may have on the functioning and integrity of the ecosystem within which the harvested species occurred. In 1980 the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) became the first Regional Fishery Management Organisation (RFMO) to implement an ecosystem approach to marine resource management.

Under CCAMLR provisions harvesting activities need to take account of three principles:

  • Prevention of decrease in size of the harvested population
  • Maintenance of ecological relationships between harvested, dependent and related living resources
  • Prevention (or minimisation of the risk) of changes to the ecosystem.

Concurrent to these developments, was a growing need for management systems to be integrative and take into account the equitable needs of all stakeholders in the marine ecosystem (e.g. the different fisheries, tourism, recreational users, scientific and medicinal uses, etc), while maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem integrity and catering for needs of species of special concern (e.g. species threatened with extinction, or having geographically restricted ranges). Although this approach is often cited as being progressive and innovative in terms of fisheries management, in reality it is based on one of the earliest principles of common law; that is the law of nuisance i.e. the activities of one stakeholder (or stakeholder group) should not have an undue negative impact on the activities of other legitimate stakeholders.Lastly, ecosystem-based fisheries management concept was influenced by the ‘precautionary principle’, which requires that in the case of lack of full scientific understanding, management should err on the side of caution and the conservation of the ecosystem. These principles have shaped what we today interpret broadly as ecosystem-based management. The concept is widely accepted and is included in many prominent international fisheries agreements, including the 1982 UN Law of the Sea Convention, the 1995 UN Straddling Fish Stocks Agreement and the 2001 Reykjavik Declaration. However, its effective implementation in national fisheries management remains sporadic and only a few countries, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the USA have attempted to integrate these principles in their fisheries management regimes. South Africa has very recently embarked on the process towards an ecosystem approach to fisheries management.

The components of an effective ecosystem-based management system framework.
Taken from Ward et al. 2002.

Principles of the framework

  1. The central focus is maintaining the natural structure and function of ecosystems, including the biodiversity and productivity of natural systems and identified important species.
  2. Human use and values of ecosystems are central to establishing objectives for use and management of natural resources.
  3. Ecosystems are dynamic; their attributes and boundaries are constantly changing and consequently interactions with human uses are also dynamic
  4. Natural resources are best managed within a management system based on a shared vision and set of objectives developed amongst stakeholders.
  5. Successful management is adaptive and based on scientific knowledge, continual learning and embedded monitoring process.
Key elements of the framework
  1. Management operates within a policy framework designed to facilitate and enable effective implementation of all the principles of ecosystem-based management.
  2. Recognition of economic, social and cultural interests as factors that may affect resource management objectives, targets and strategies and activities.
  3. Ecological values are recognized and incorporated into the management system through developing agreed objectives, targets, strategies and activities that reduce the risk of impacts of resource exploitation.
  4. Information on the utilized species is adequate to ensure that there is a low risk of over-harvesting and population and genetic diversity is maintained.
  5. The resource management system is comprehensive and inclusive and uses an adaptive approach. 6. Environmental externalities that may affect the resource or the ecosystem are properly included in the resource management system.
Operational components
  1. Develop out-come oriented objectives for management activities, i.e. clearly express what the resource management is trying to achieve.
  2. Delineate boundaries for the management system, including ecologically defined spatial boundaries, and all ecologically and socioeconomic factors influencing the productivity of the resource and the integrity of the ecosystem.
  3. Involve stakeholders in all aspects of the management system leading to shared and agreed individual and collective aspirations for the resource and associated ecosystems.
  4. Have a functional information system, including monitoring activities for the objectives and targets, and research activities for the key uncertainties.

What is an ecosystem approach to fisheries?
Ecosystem-based fisheries management makes ecological sustainability the primary goal of management and recognises the dependence of human well-being on ecological health. The ecosystem approach to fisheries therefore takes account of the interactions of fishing with the ecosystem and is best achieved through an integrated management approach involving all stakeholders. Stakeholders need to collectively set a vision for the marine environment that meets their needs equitably, but also recognises the ecological constraints of the system.

In a study by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), it was recognized that ecosystem-based management requires a hierarchical approach that is based on five basic principles (outlined in Table 1). Nested under these principles are the key elements and the operational components of the system. From this framework specific objectives, enabling processes and performance indicators are developed that meet the needs of the key elements.

Examples of enabling processes include:

  1. Harvesting levels for ecologically important species are set at such a level to allow ‘escapement’ of sufficient prey items to support other predators in the marine ecosystem (e.g. whales, dolphins, seabirds, seals and other predatory fish).
  2. Fishing gear modifications may be needed to reduce the bycatch of non-target species. For example, Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) allow turtles to escape from shrimp trawl nets, and bird-scaring lines deter seabirds from becoming unintentionally hooked and drowned on longline fishing gear. Modifying times at which fishing gear is deployed may further minimise harmful interactions.
  3. Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) may be needed to preserve the natural functioning on the ecosystem from both the effects of harvesting and habitat destruction. For instance, the use of bottom trawl nets not only reduces the prevalence of the target species, but also disturbs and modifies habitats on the sea bottom. It may therefore be necessary to declare ‘no trawl’ areas that can remain undisturbed. Furthermore, the use of ‘no take’ MPAs is increasingly recognised as an effective fisheries management tool that bolsters fish stocks and increases overall catch rates for the fishery.
  4. Areas that are exceptionally sensitive to disturbance by fishing and other operations (e.g. fish spawning grounds) need to be identified and appropriately protected. For instance, many seamounts of the high seas are home to highly sensitive and geographically restricted ecosystems. Many of these ecosystems are being destroyed by trawl nets even before the species that inhabit them have been described.

Ecosystem approach to South African fisheries
The concept of taking ecological considerations into account in environmental resource management is embedded in the Constitution of South Africa. Section 24 of the Constitution, which expresses general environmental rights, requires protection of the environment that (amongst other) ‘secures ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources, while promoting justifiable economic and social development’.

In South African law, legislation pertaining to the harvesting of marine resources is governed by the Marine Living Resources Act (1998). The need for an ecosystem-based fishery management is explicitly stated in the objectives of this Act, and requires the Minister to have due regard for the following (amongst other objectives):

  • The need to achieve optimum utilisation and ecologically sustainable development of marine living resources;
  • The need to protect the ecosystem as a whole, including species which are not targeted for exploitation.

Furthermore, the Act endorses the precautionary principle as a fishery management principle. It is therefore clear that this Act gives a clear mandate for South African fisheries to be managed according to ecosystem-based principles.

South Africa is a signatory to various legally binding international agreements (e.g. the 1982 UN Law of the Sea Convention) that uphold ecosystem-based management principles, as well as other ‘soft law’ international instruments – most notably the Reykjavik Declaration on Responsible Fisheries in the Marine Ecosystem.

Additionally, the World Summit for Sustainable Development, held in Johannesburg in 2002, encouraged the application of the ecosystem approach to sustainable development of the oceans by 2010.

This political and legislative commitment by South Africa has recently been crystallized by the creation of a special task group within the Directorate of Marine and Coastal Management to progress the ‘Ecosystem Approaches to Fisheries Management’.



Associated Sustainable Development Articles:

Eco-Logic