SAFS Newsletter Masthead


Banner photos (left to right): Jackie Carter, Jeremy Monroe, Amanda Phillips, Jonathan Moore

Global Fisheries Database Project

The School of Aquatic & Fishery Sciences has long worked with partners and collaborators at national and international academic institutions, research laboratories, consulting companies, environmental groups, and the fishing industry. In this issue, we highlight our latest collaborative effort.

A group of faculty led by Ray Hilborn is developing a database that will contain a summary of global information on catches as well as information on stock status for as many assessed fish stocks as possible. This Global Fisheries Database (GFD) will provide researchers with the ability to answer broad policy questions, including what determines whether a fishery can be managed sustainably. This research will feed into the policy debates that will drive fisheries management into the future. Substantial funding for this project is generously being provided by the US North Pacific fishery industry.

The GFD Project was initiated in 2007. The project involves a wide scope and breadth of collaborators: In academia, we have SAFS faculty—Ray Hilborn (project lead; see following interview with Ray on his views on future of global fisheries and video on the “Future of Our Fisheries”), Trevor Branch, Tim Essington, and André Punt, and affiliate faculty member Ed Melvin (also a marine fisheries scientist with Washington Sea Grant). In late 2011, a database manager, Daniel Hively, was added to the SAFS roster.

On a broader scale, the National Science Foundation and NOAA Fisheries also are contributing to the project: for example, NOAA has been providing some of the data sets. In this article, Ray Hilborn provides us with the academic view of the project, and Donna Parker and Ed Poulson talk about the fishing industry's perspective.

— André Punt, Director

The SAFS View

Ray Hilborn

Photo courtesy of R. Hilborn

We asked Ray how this project came about: He said “Arthur Nowell (Dean of the College of Ocean and Fishery Sciences) and SAFS Director Dave Armstrong initiated discussions to see if there was potential for synergy between the Northeast Pacific fishing industries and SAFS.” One might think that there has always been synergy between SAFS and industry, but Ray provided some perspective:

“Historically, the fishing industry had largely focused on catch allocation, a largely political issue. More recently, as allocation problems have largely been addressed, the focus has shifted to sustainability and bycatch, and it is here that science and industry interests overlap.” He added, “The fishing industry is not homogeneous—different fisheries have different interests and needs—but the database attracted broad interest from all these fisheries.”

The word “global” in the project title derives from data coming from every continent, but Ray qualified this: “At present, the project is heavily weighted towards developed countries that do more scientific stock assessments: most of the major fisheries in US, Canada, Iceland, Norway, the European Union, New Zealand, Australia; and South Africa and the high seas tuna fisheries; and there are many major fisheries from South America and Japan.”

Project investigators are seeking data from developing countries as well (e.g., West Africa). Ray noted, “NOAA scientists—Jim Ianelli (UW SAFS '93) and Ian Taylor (UW QERM '08)—are attending a meeting in India in hopes of incorporating that country's data sets into the larger data collection.” Data are collected largely through national and international organizations (e.g., International Council on the Exploration of the Sea), but investigators typically find out about data sets by communicating with individual researchers.

Industry, which includes the pollock, hake, and Bering Sea crab fisheries, has funded the project for two years to help augment the existing database on fisheries stock status with more assessments—for example, estimated trends in abundance, catch, recruitment, and fishing mortality—and to analyze the data to address a range of questions such as the status of world fisheries. Ray clarified the distinction between assessment and status: “Stock status is usually defined as the abundance of the stock, relative to target levels, and these targets are usually determined as part of the assessment process.” Assessment is the main informer of stock status. In addition to the assessments, investigators are looking at how management system attributes—such as how catches are allocated, how harvest is controlled, and what gear types are used—affect the biological status of the stocks.

Ray noted that the ultimate goal of the GFD project is to “identify what leads to sustainable fisheries management and provide appropriate advice to fisheries management agencies, industry, and non-governmental organizations.” He also described a related project that has just been funded by two foundations and a number of world-wide fishing industry groups: “This project will evaluate a range of possible ‘Best Practice Guidelines’ for bottom trawl fisheries. Like the GFD project project the objective is to provide guidance and sustainable fisheries practices.”

The Industry Perspective

Over the years, the fishing industry has invested in research towards achieving sustainable fisheries in perpetuity. We acknowledge the many fisheries-related organizations that have contributed funds directly or indirectly, including the those listed below:

Alaska Seafood Cooperative

Arctic Storm, Inc.

At-sea Processors Association

Bering Sea Fisheries Research Foundation

Freezer Longline Conservation Cooperative

Freezer longliners

Halibut producers pool

Icicle Seafoods, Inc.

Marine Safety Reserve

Pacific Seafood Processors Association

United Catcher Boats

We asked two industry members several questions to get their take on the GFD project: Ed Poulson (President, Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers; member, North Pacific Council Advisory Panel) and Donna Parker (Director of Government Affair, Arctic Storm Management Group).

MD: What do you consider the main scientific issues confronting the North Pacific fishing industry?

EP: We still have limited biological understanding of crab as well as the effects of changing environments on fishery stocks. For example, growth and age information for Bering Sea commercial crab stocks is limited. Also, while we think the high variability of crab stocks is likely due to changing environmental conditions, the relationship between environmental conditions and future crab recruitment (or lack thereof) is poorly understood. These concerns apply to other fisheries as well.

DP: At an industry roundtable discussion with UW SAFS faculty last fall, the concept emerged of a "Layer Cake" of precautionary and potentially redundant fishery management measures to avoid overfishing. This layer cake is one of the most vexing issues industry faces. While overfishing is a serious problem that needs to be addressed head-on, addressing the same issue with several different approaches can be problematic for industry.

We'd like fishery managers—and NOAA scientists in partnership with SAFS researchers—to take a closer look at the cumulative socio-economic trade-offs of a multi-layer, ecosystem-based, precautionary approach to fishery management. Sometimes the combination of all the policies and legal constraints leads to ”underfishing.“ For instance, in the Bering Sea there is a 2,000,000 metric tons cap that constrains the catch limits of all species combined, even when stock assessments recommend precautionary catch limits that add to more than 2,000,000 mt. While this might be a useful precautionary management tool to compensate for uncertainty, when used in combination with other precautionary measures also crafted to avoid overfishing, some of the layered management measures may be redundant and unnecessarily constraining. For instance, another trend is to split out species assemblages and stock structure to further insure that species are not overfished. As stocks are further split to match management areas given suspected stock structure, catch and bycatch limits are applied to increasingly smaller areas and become more and more constraining on the commercial fisheries. This increasing tendency to split stocks could eventually lead to stocks which are so small that there may be calls for ESA listing. When do these management changes serve legitimate conservation objectives and when do they cause more harm than good? What are the socio-economic trade-offs? And is such an extensive, multi-layered approach to ecosystem management required to accomplish conservation goals?

MD: How can SAFS best contribute to sustainable fishing practices?

EP: In the North Pacific, sustainable fishing practices are already the norm. In fact, uncertainties in stock biology or surveys have resulted in more conservative “buffers” to ensure sustainability. Given that such practices are not the norm worldwide, the SAFS database project could be very helpful in defining best practices for fisheries that may not currently be operating sustainably.

For example, the Bering Sea crab industry has suffered significantly from the high levels of illegal fishing in the Russian crab fishery—losses due to illegal fishing since 2000 are estimated at over $500 million, deflating world-wide prices for crab. We hope the SAFS database project will help encourage sustainable fishing practices to the Russian fisheries and throughout the world.

In addition, SAFS can (and has) helped us tremendously through general crab research and stock modeling work that accounts for annual variability and uncertainty promoting sustainability.

DP: Sustainable fishing practices can be controversial. An example is the use of bottom trawl gear, which is the only way to efficiently capture many species of groundfish. The concerns about bottom trawling are twofold: (1) the amount of non-target species caught, and (2) gear impacts to habitat. Some fishing practices and gear modifications can reduce these impacts. Recognizing that bottom trawling is an important and valuable gear type for harvesting seafood, the UW is currently spearheading an international effort to develop Bottom-Trawl Best Practices Guidelines. It will look at trawl footprints, habitat impacts, the potential impacts on hard- to soft-bottom areas and the overall impacts on biodiversity and stock productivity, including bycatch impacts. This sort of contribution will benefit the oceans, the fishermen dependent on the fishery resource, and consumers reliant on the efficient harvest of healthy seafood.

MD: How do you see the relationship between SAFS and industry now and in the future?

EP: The Bering Sea crab industry is extremely fortunate to have numerous scientists at the SAFS and other UW departments who are experts in the crab fisheries and who are striving for long-term sustainability of our crab resources. David Armstrong’s research has demonstrated the importance of crab broodstock and suitable habitat in certain areas of the Bering Sea. André Punt has been instrumental in assisting NOAA Fisheries and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in developing and improving models for managing Bering Sea crab stocks. Dr. David Fluharty (SMEA faculty) helped design the current catch share system under which the Bering Sea crab fisheries now operate. This catch share system has dramatically increased safety in the crab fisheries and improved sustainability of our resource.

DP: The industry and UW SAFS have long tried to reach across Lake Washington and build a strong partnership. In recent years, those efforts seem to be succeeding. The formula for success seems to be communication, communication, communication. With it comes a better understanding on both sides of issues critical to sustainable fisheries. The industry is reliant on the university to produce good science that is relevant to our fisheries, for faculty to participate in fishery management Plan Teams and the Science and Statistical Committees of the regional fishery management councils and to train future fishery managers. In return, we view financial support of UW SAFS as an excellent investment.

MD: What specific questions do you want the project to answer?

EP: Given the impact of illegal fishing from other countries, we are very interested in better understanding crab fishing practices outside of Alaska. If sustainable fishing practices could be implemented in crab fisheries world-wide, we could protect these crab stocks and provide a level playing field in terms of competition for this global seafood product.

DP: There are many wild claims made about the sustainability of fisheries in our region and around the world. Often they are based on preconceived notions and incomplete data such as trends in historical catches. We support the development of the Global Fisheries Database at the UW because it is building a world-class resource that will incorporate not only catch data, but survey data, global stock assessments, fishery management attributes, and social and economic performance of the world's fisheries. In a nutshell, we want claims about current and future fisheries to be grounded in complete data and good science. More specific questions will follow once that foundation is built.

MD: What will the fishing industry look like in 2048?

EP: The Bering Sea crab industry would hope that in 2048 we would have healthy and abundant stocks harvested by newer energy efficient vessels with ever improving safety built in to their design. However, we are also very concerned with the changing ocean environment. We are particularly concerned of ocean acidification and the impacts this may have on our crab stocks by 2048.

DP: There are several places in the world that have been models for good fishery management, such as New Zealand, Australia, and Iceland, as well as the North Pacific region off the coast of Alaska, where there is not a single stock of overfished groundfish. There have been remarkable advances in the past decade to successfully rebuild overfished stocks in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world. In 2048, I expect there to be few overfished stocks in the ocean due to fishing. Call me crazy.

Hilborn video: ”The Future of Our Fisheries“