Worldwide, fishing fleets discard as many as two of every five sea creatures they catch. Now, a new tool can help fishers locate the most productive fishing spots while avoiding unwanted or protected species such as sea turtles and dolphins.
Called EcoCast, the experimental tool developed by researchers at Stanford and other universities combines satellite data of ocean conditions, records from fisheries observers and species tracking data to pinpoint ideal fishing areas on a daily basis. Resource managers can adjust the weighting of each species as risks change and the fishing season progresses. This helps fishers optimize their harvest of target fish, while reducing the risk of inadvertently catching and killing sensitive species.
The findings, published this week in Science Advances, show that this type of dynamic management tool and approach can be up to 10 times more efficient for protecting species than previous management styles.
"EcoCast is leading the way toward more dynamic management of marine resources," said coauthor Larry Crowder, the Edward Ricketts Provostial Professor of Marine Ecology and Conservation at Stanford's Hopkins Marine Station. "We're putting the information directly in the hands of the fishers and managers."
Fisheries managers currently protect species by creating static areas that fishers must avoid. However, these protected areas don't reflect the dynamic nature of life in the ocean, where protected fish and other creatures regularly migrate out of the no-fishing zones and into fishers' nets.
"Fishers will be willing to try this because they're always looking for ways to do things differently, and better," said Gary Burke, a drift gillnet fisherman in Southern California who collaborated on the research. "It's not going to be perfect, because it's a prediction, but it is giving us access to information we haven't had before."
Hooking others, too
EcoCast doesn't just provide fishers with better information. It also informs scientists, resource managers and researchers working with big data to advance more sustainable fisheries practices.
"By pioneering a way of evaluating both conservation objectives and economic profitability for sustainable U.S. fisheries, we're simultaneously advancing both conservation and economic objectives," said Elliott Hazen, study lead author and visiting scholar at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.
The study builds on previous efforts to consider marine management approaches that recognize the dynamic nature of oceans, ocean resources and ocean users such as fishers. The use of dynamic environmental data to support dynamic ocean management provides an innovative approach to balance viable fisheries and protect the ecosystem. This type of modeling with risk zones also has implications for shipping lanes, as knowing the location of sensitive species could shift where boats travel.
"We've had to settle for static management in the past," Crowder said. "Now, we can consider this novel approach to address one of the most significant barriers to global fisheries sustainability."
Crowder is also co-director of Stanford's Osa & Golfito Initiative. Elliott Hazen is also a research ecologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Southwest Fisheries Science Center. Other co-authors are from the University of California, Santa Cruz; University of the Sunshine Coast; Old Dominion University; University of Maryland; Moss Landing Marine Lab; and San Diego State University.