Visions for Bering Sea ecosystem plan

SEATTLE – Work on a Bering Sea fishery ecosystem plan is moving forward, although a final structure has not been chosen.

Nearly two dozen North Pacific fishery stakeholders met to discuss a Bering Sea fishery ecosystem plan, or FEP, at a public hearing in Seattle Sept. 15 and 16.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council agreed in February to continue work on a Bering Sea FEP, the second FEP that council has drafted. Previously, the council developed a FEP for the Aleutian Islands.

The plan will likely codify, in some way, ecosystem considerations into the council’s management approach, but how to do so is still under discussion.

The Aleutians FEP is a policy document implemented through the standard management process, according to council staff Diana Evans. The committee can suggest that the council take a similar route for the Bering Sea FEP, or it can suggest a new direction.

The Bering Sea plan is largely on the table because of interest raised by environmental groups about protections for two enormous Bering Sea canyons, but a scope has not yet been decided — so it could take a broad look at the region, or it could be more dialed into that specific issue, where the impetus originated.

During the Sept. 15 public hearing with the council’s ecosystem committee, representatives from several organizations talked about what they’d like to see in an ecosystem plan, with ideas ranging from a short document to a longer one; some called for the plan to directly result in management action, while others suggested that it simply provide general guidance to the council.

The committee also discussed those differences further during a Sept. 16 meeting, but ultimately any final decisions will be made by the council. The committee will hold another public hearing around the council’s October meeting, in Anchorage.

Steve Marx, from Pew, said his organization sees an FEP as a way to implement more ecosystem-based management in the Bering Sea.

Marx said the FEP could be a tool for identifying and assessing the ecological, social and economic factors involved in fishery management decisions, and the trade-offs associated with reaching optimum yield.

The plan could also look at likely fisheries impacts of climate change, such as species composition and distribution, and how to mitigate them.

Marx suggested that a plan contain ecosystem goals, in addition to the underlying optimum yield goal, that could help drive management decisions. Marx said the plan could also identify ecosystem indicators, or eventually thresholds, for monitoring fishery performance.

Generally, most of the stakeholders seemed to agree with those comments, although some at the hearing questioned how indicators or thresholds would be used, and there was disagreement about how strongly an ecosystem plan should tie to management action.

Becca Robbins Gisclair, an ecosystem committee member who works for the Alaska Marine Conservation Council and the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Assocation, agreed that the FEP could be a place to study and address trade-offs.

“The FEP really gives us the opportunity to be more proactive,” she said.

Robbins Gisclair also said the plan could be a place to consider subsistence needs and incorporate traditional and ecological knowledge into the management process.

Mark Fina, from US Seafoods, said his company would like to see a plan that provides flexibility and that can be responsive to new information as it comes. Ultimately, an ecosystem plan should be adaptive, he said.

Greenpeace’s Jackie Dragon said she’d like to see the FEP used for a comprehensive ecosystem-based management approach rather than piecing certain components together.

Dragon also proposed a more radical shift than most of the other stakeholders, suggesting a more precautionary approach to management. Specifically, Dragon suggested shifting the burden of proof so that it had to be determined that any fishing activity would not damage the ecosystem before it occurred.

Dragon also mentioned the need to show species interaction and include information on forage species and habitat in an ecosystem plan, and suggested that managers be provided with a mechanism to evaluate fishery impacts on other species.

Oceana’s Mike Levine said he thought the FEP was one component of implementing ecosystem management, and can outline goals for an ecosystem vision. He also reiterated the idea of using the plan to help provide a foundation for adapting to future fishery changes — and talked about the benefits of being proactive, rather than reactive.

Marine Conservation Alliance Executive Director Merrick Burden said thought there was a lot of agreement among the hearing participants, and offered additional ideas for consideration as the committee works on its recommendations for a plan.

Burden said that the FEP should look at cumulative effects of management actions, address information gaps and could also be a way of using adaptive management.

Burden also said the plan could be a way to identify and monitor ecosystem indicators.

Ecosystem committee members also provided other ideas for consideration after hearing from the public.

UW professor Dave Fluharty said that figuring out how to support communities will be a challenge, but is an important part of a future plan. He noted that while Community Development Quota groups are intended to play that role, they also have other partners and interests, making the analysis more complicated. CDQ groups are 65 villages within 50 miles of the Bering Sea coast represented by six organizations that receive 10.7 percent of the annual fishing harvest among 36 species in the Bering Sea.

Stephanie Madsen of the At-sea Processors Association said it was also important that the committee remain focused on producing a plan that adds value without duplicating other work, and noted the importance of managing expectations. Not every goal mentioned at the Seattle hearing or in other sessions could come to fruition, she said.

The ecosystem committee also heard reports on other efforts to study and produce FEPs.

University of Washington professor Tim Essington updated the committee on a task force he co-chairs that is looking at fishery ecosystem plans more broadly. The Lenfest task force was convened earlier this year, and plans to spend the next two years developing a blueprint for how councils might develop FEPs.

Essington said the group will look around the country at how past FEPs have been written and used, as well as to other countries, such as Australia and Canada.

Essington also suggested that Bering Sea FEP be used to focus on how to put management in a new light.

North Pacific council member Bill Tweit, who chairs the ecosystem committee, said the timing of the Lenfest effort was “fortuitous.”

“From our standpoint, it’s a really exciting prospect,” he said.

Essington said the task force’s work will be informed by a recent report done by a NOAA committee, which Fluharty was a part of.

Fluharty said that committee looked at various FEPs developed throughout the country, and the state of ecosystem science in each region more generally.

Yvonne deReynier, from NMFS West Coast Region office, talked about the process the Pacific Council went through recently to develop an FEP.

Ultimately, it was modeled in part on the Aleutians model, and in part on other documents. The council opted to try to inform the public about the ecosystem, but not overwhelm them with information.

In discussing whether to incorporate ecosystem interactions into the document, committee members referred to that approach.

Evans noted that much of that information is already available, but that there could be interest in bringing it together in the FEP.

Tweit said he would lean towards informing but not overwhelming, and not making the document too lengthy.

The committee also agreed during its meeting to suggest that the council restart the Alaska Marine Ecosystem Forum, a group with participation from several different state and federal agencies that was formed to discuss Alaska ecosystem issues. The group has been inactive for several years, but the committee discussed that it could be a productive place to have some of the conversations about how to move forward on ecosystem management in the Bering Sea and elsewhere.

Response submitted by Greenpeace Senior Oceans campaigner Jackie Dragon:

Thank you for your recent article: Stakeholders share visions for Bering Sea ecosystem plan. I feel compelled to add some context to the suggestions attributed to Greenpeace during the public hearing in Seattle last week. The article says that I “proposed a more radical shift than most of the other stakeholders, suggesting a more precautionary approach to management… [and] shifting the burden of proof so that it had to be determined that any fishing activity would not damage the ecosystem before it occurred.” It may be so that these are the most radical ideas raised at the hearing, something not uncharacteristic of Greenpeace, but your readers should know these ideas are not our original thinking as your article leads them to believe. In fact, during my testimony, I quoted this good guidance available to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. Rather than a radical environmental view, it comes from the Ecosystem Principles Advisory Panel report to Congress, delivered fifteen years ago. The Panel, chaired by UW’s Dr. Dave Fluharty who sat on the NPFMC at the time, and was in the room during last week’s hearing, a current member of the NPFMC’s Ecosystem Committee concluded in 1999: “A great deal of education about this new approach will be required, and all involved must be prepared to learn. The two hardest lessons are likely to be shifting the burden of proof to the fishery to demonstrate that the ecosystem will not be damaged by fishing, and to develop a truly precautionary approach to fishery management.” (NMFS 1999)  I appreciate the opportunity to properly attribute this not so new and, hopefully, not so radical idea.

11/23/2016 - 2:04pm