Thoughts on Climate Change Planning, Resilience & Forage Fish

Atlantic Menhaden. Photo courtesy NOAA.

Managers Take Up Next Phase of East Coast Climate Change Scenario Planning

This article was originally published in Wild Oceans’ The Horizon newsletter and is reprinted with permission. View the latest issue and past issues of The Horizon. Top photo: Atlantic menhaden.

After the East Coast Climate Scenario Creation Workshop (held June 21-23), I left Washington D.C. troubled by the potential realities that lay ahead for marine fisheries and unsettled that our task stopped short of devising recommendations for how to prepare for the worst of them.

The Scenario Creation Workshop marked phase four of six that comprise a multi-year effort to explore how climate change might affect fisheries on the East Coast. Involving the New England, Mid-Atlantic and South Atlantic Fishery Management Councils, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and NOAA Fisheries, the initiative is a remarkable collaboration to “promote fishery conservation and resilient fishing communities, and address uncertainty in an era of climate change.”

My fellow workshop attendees included recreational and commercial fishermen, state and federal fishery managers, scientists, environmental organization representatives, and staff from the east coast fishery management bodies. The 75 participants were divided into working groups representing diverse backgrounds and perspectives. Our charge over the three days was “to develop a small number of divergent, plausible, challenging, relevant, memorable stories that outline possible conditions facing East Coast fisheries in the next 20 years.”

While warming Atlantic waters are already driving many stocks northward into new territories, the exact nature of how climate change impacts, which are complex and interconnected, will reverberate throughout marine ecosystems and fishing communities in the years ahead is highly uncertain. Scenario planning is a tool for leaders to prepare for action when faced with an unpredictable future.

Jonathan Star, our workshop facilitator, has been leading scenario planning workshops for more than 20 years, and his work in the area of climate change includes the Pacific Fishery Management Council’s Climate and Communities Initiative and the National Park Service Climate Change Response Program.

“Scenarios are stories. They are works of art rather than scientific analyses. The precision of [their content] is less important than the types of conversations and decisions they spark.”
—Arie de Geus, The Living Company

Mr. Star tasked each group with exploring combinations of biological, oceanographic and socio-economic drivers of change that tell a story about a plausible future state of fisheries. Many scenario titles were comical — Sharknado; Gone with the Wind; Manage Fast, Not Half Fast; Total Annihilation; We Hope Not — but the stories they told were sobering. Some groups expanded on opportunities for success in a changing fisheries landscape. “Adaptability” of science, of managers and of fishermen was the key to resilience. And all this left me contemplating how ecosystem resilience fits into the discussion of fisheries resilience.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) defines resilience as a “system’s capacity to anticipate and reduce, cope with, and respond to and recover from external disruptions.” The IPCC’s definition recognizes that social and ecological systems are intertwined, as is certainly the case with marine fisheries. In a study synthesizing attributes of climate change resilience in marine fisheries, Mason et al. (2022) explain that to operationalize resilience, fisheries should be evaluated holistically as social-ecological systems, accounting for ecological, socio-economic and governance dimensions.[1]

Connectivity — within populations, between habitats and through species interactions — is an essential attribute of ecosystem resilience. Through food web connections, an ecosystem’s energy cycle is maintained. Forage species constitute a vital link in the marine food web by consuming plankton and other small marine organisms and transferring this energy up the food chain to top predators.

And this is why the state of the forage base is concerning. Atlantic mackerel and Atlantic herring, historically the most important target species for the industrial bait fisheries in the Northeast, are overfished with long recovery roads ahead. River herring and American shad have been depleted to low levels for decades. Fishermen have turned their attention to available alternatives, like Atlantic menhaden and shortfin squid, and even to unmanaged species like Atlantic thread herring that are moving into new areas. How are the changing forage base and changing forage fisheries affecting predators, and are there strategies managers can employ to safeguard connectivity?

Using ecosystem models to explore management strategies for recovering anadromous forage fish (alewife, blueback herring and American shad), Dias et al. (2022) recommend a portfolio-based approach to forage fish management to provide resilience to stressors, including climate change. Because forage fishes occupy similar niches and are vulnerable to similar anthropogenic stressors, the goal is to maintain a forage complex target biomass with attention to individual stock and species dynamics.[2]

The researchers’ findings echo recommendations articulated by Wild Oceans in the 2015 report, Resource Sharing: The Berkely Criterion. Specifically, Ken Hinman, the report’s author, recommends protecting the whole forage base through ecosystem-level forage status indicators that can be used by managers to monitor the health of the forage base and inform decisions.

With the creation of scenarios (Phase 4) nearly complete, the mantle will pass to the fishery management bodies to take the lead on Phase 5: Application, where the rubber hits the road. Their charge will be to use the final set of scenarios to develop a set of near-term and long-term management priorities and policy recommendations. The needs of fishing communities are pressing. Shifting stocks and availability are impacting every region. Adaptive management strategies to cope with climate change must be a focus of upcoming deliberations for a promising fishing future.

But will mounting pressure for a regulatory structure that is adaptable and flexible — attributes of socio-economic resilience — come at the expense of opportunities to build crosscutting ecological resilience strategies that sustain our fisheries for the long term? To borrow from the title of one of the workshop scenarios, We Hope Not.

1. Mason, J. G., Eurich, J. G., Lau, J. D.,Battista, W., Free, C. M., Mills, K. E., Tokunaga, K., Zhao, L. Z., Dickey-Collas, M., Valle, M., Pecl, G. T., Cinner, J. E., McClanahan, T. R., Allison, E. H., Friedman, W. R., Silva, C., Yáñez, E., Barbieri, M. Á., & Kleisner, K. M. (2022). Attributes of climate resilience in fisheries: From theory to practice. Fish and Fisheries, 23, 522–544.

2. Dias, B. S., Frisk, M. G., & Jordaan, A. (2022). Contrasting fishing effort reduction and habitat connectivity as management strategies to promote alewife (Alosa pseudoharengus) recovery using an ecosystem model. Limnology and Oceanography, 67, S5-S22

About Pam Lyons Gromen

Pam Lyons Gromen is the executive director of Wild Oceans.

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