Since the Magnuson-Stevens fisheries management act was reauthorized in 1996 as the Sustainable Fisheries Act, there’s been a mandate for ‘ecosystem management’ of the fish in the oceans of the United States (this was reaffirmed with last year’s reauthorization of the MSA). I think it’s fair to say, whether you look at the North Pacific, the North Atlantic, or our own Gulf of Mexico – most fish managers don’t know what it means, and don’t know how to do it. As a result, it hasn’t been done. But do I have any specific direction to these poor managers of our shared natural resources? Can I write down how they should be ‘managing ecosystems?’Probably not as explicitly as the fish managers would like, but I can take a stab at it, and point to some movement around the globe that gives me hope that we can start to make it happen on a more wide-scale level:First, to enact ecosystem management, we should remember the wise words of Aldo Leopold (though he was writing of a ‘land ethic’ I think he’d be alright with us applying his values to a ‘marine ethic’ as well): “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” We need to keep all the pieces of a functioning ecosystem, to keep it healthy. We can expect the law of unintended consequences to apply to our seas.One way to keep all the pieces is to simply fence off the most pristine and intact habitats we have left. Recently the tiny island nation of Kirbati in the north Pacific created the largest marine sanctuary in the world. Choosing to forgo the immediate gain of commercial fishing leases and recreational fishing permits, the country decided to add to their existing Phoenix Islands Protected Area, to total over 158,000 square miles! Trumping President Bush’s Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Hawaii, this is the payoff of important work by the island nation, conservation international and the New England Aquarium.The unfortunate reality in the U.S. is that recreational and commercial fishing interests react with violent opposition to any talk of ‘restricted areas’, even though the argument can be made that by keeping some areas free of fishing, the fish in those areas can become so productive that they actually ‘seed’ other areas that are open to fishing. Here in the Gulf, one of our marine sanctuaries, the Flower Garden Banks, is right now considering closing some of the banks to fishing and diving to see what the affect will be. An even larger proposal has been floated called, “Islands in the Stream.” This concept is the brain child of Billy Causey, who helped create the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary. The stream in the name is the circling currents of the Gulf of Mexico, which connects even distant areas. The islands would be a network of different protected areas along that current – stretching from the Yucatan around to the Keys. Some are areas that already have some protection, such as the Flower Garden Banks, but most are areas that researchers know contain high-value habitat, but are as yet, unprotected.Aside from creating sanctuaries, ecosystem management must work to consider, characterize and quantify the interactions between fish species – such as the red snapper – shrimp interactions that have been quantified in the finally finalized new rules to rebuild red snapper. These rules are a good first step, as they acknowledge that shrimp trawl bycatch has a significant impact on red snapper, and needs to be a factor in that species management. But this regulation is the exception, not the rule, and for the most part bycatch isn’t significantly considered in the single-species management rules that exist in the Gulf.Texas is taking the lead in protecting a key forage species, currently proposing a limit on menhaden catch in state waters, specifically because so many species from birds to marine mammals to predatory fish rely on this unassuming schooling fish. Of course, this isn’t news, and as my friend Mark Muhich with the Galveston Sierra Club points out – the NY Times was writing about the importance of this species to other species some 100+ years ago. We think the Texas cap is a good first step, but would like to see observers on menhaden boats to characterize and quantify the catch and bycatch as the pogie boats strip mine the schools, as well as some far more intense species management modeling which takes into account the whole ecosystem’s need for menhaden and sets some catch levels which respect those interactions. (Agree? Take action here).It all comes down to this: Humanity has had a significant impact on our marine ecosystems. A new map out of Stanford shows that over 40% of the world’s oceans have been hammered by humans – whether it’s fishing, coastal development, land-based pollution running into the oceans, shipping pollution or atmospheric deposition, the seemingly endless oceans are running out of untouched areas where the cogs and wheels are still running smoothly. Trawling, purse seines or longlines, the inherently unfair arms race we’ve engaged in with our fish friends (no arms on their side, just flippers) has hammered habitats and winnowed fish populations. The photo to the right, a google earth image from our friends at Skytruth shows the mud plumes of shrimp trawlers off the Louisiana coast, churning the benthic habitat and leaving an indelible mark visible from space.It’s time to get serious saving cogs.Aaron Viles is the GRN’s Campaign Director

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