The science of sustainable seafood, explained

Having our fish and eating it too: Maximizing food production and biodiversity using good management

Managing the trade-off between food production and biodiversity is one of the most challenging parts of conservation. Crops and pasture have long replaced wilderness as the dominant landscape on Earth—and we need more food as the population grows. How do decision makers find solutions that feed everyone while minimizing environmental impact? In fisheries, scientists and managers need to find the right balance between seafood harvest and biodiversity impacts like bycatch.

A paper out this month entitled, The trade-off between biodiversity and sustainable fish harvest with area-based management (open access), shows how regulating fishing effort by area and gear can produce a win-win solution for food production and biodiversity.

The authors used two case studies to evaluate how closing specific areas to particular kinds of fishing changed harvest and biodiversity impacts. They calculated the equilibrium abundance of the targeted fish and non-target species of concern (birds, mammals, corals & sponges, etc.), then adjusted fishing effort by gear type and area to find the most beneficial results.

They found that the trade-off between fishery production and biodiversity is not linear, but convex, meaning win-win compromises exist in the middle. For example, biodiversity is maximized when no fishing is allowed, but a significant amount of fishing can result in only a small biodiversity loss (with the right area management in place).  

graphical representation of a convex trade off
Graphical representation of two kinds of trade-offs, linear and convex.

Area and gear management in Alaska

The researchers used species data from Alaska to build their model. They examined how fishing for pollock, cod, sole, halibut, and crabs impacted the bycatch of corals, sponges, and albatross in different areas of Alaska.

Spatial management in Alaska. Different colours or shades indicate different kinds of protection. In addition, effort and catch of species of fish and invertebrates are also allocated by area. Figure from Hilborn et al. 2020 courtesy of John Olsen of NMFS.

Their results show how the biodiversity/food production trade-off changes under different fishing regulations. For example, when fishing effort is set to maximize sustainable yield of target species, corals, sponges, and albatross are severely depleted. When just a small weight is placed on biodiversity conservation, trawling is closed in the Aleutian islands to protect the corals and sponges. Moving the biodiversity weight to 10% closes longlining as well, which also has some impact on corals and sponges in the Aleutians. Closing both types of fishing protects two-thirds of the benthic corals and sponges in Alaska (the rest are in the Bering Sea). Moving the ‘biodiversity slider’ to 30% closes longlining in the Bering Sea to protect albatross. The next big jump occurs when trawling in the Bearing Sea is closed to protect the remaining coral and sponge biodiversity. No-take MPAs that ban all fishing start to appear when biodiversity is weighted over 90%.

Graphical representation of biodiversity trade offs in regard to food.
Different gear and area regulations result in different trade-offs between food production and biodiversity.

Maximizing biodiversity and fishing revenue

Using well-designed area based management that ban certain types of fishing, e.g. bottom trawling where there are corals and longlining where there are albatross, the model’s win-win keeps 87% of fishing profit while protecting 77% of biodiversity.

The convex relationship between relative revenue and biodiversity. Figure from Hilborn et al. 2020.
The convex relationship between relative revenue and biodiversity. Figure from Hilborn et al. 2020.

Researchers also reported a model of California fishing that showed a similar convex relationship. In California, banning most bottom trawling and closing fishing in areas where sea birds nest moves biodiversity protection from 20% to 75% with almost no loss of fishing revenue.

Ray Hilborn, one of the lead authors on the study (and founder of this website), said: “Our paper shows that it is possible, or even quite easy, to maintain high levels of biodiversity without sacrificing much food production or fishing profit. The key is stopping fishing practices that impact biodiversity in areas of high biodiversity importance, for example, bottom trawling where there are high densities of corals and sponges.”

The paper goes on to critique the global effort to ban fishing in 30% of the ocean saying that a more nuanced approach, using well-designed, science-based gear restrictions would be a more effective approach:

It seems unlikely that no-take areas are necessary to protect biodiversity if gear and area-specific regulation of fishing effort can be implemented… The closure of the large portions of the Aleutian Islands to bottom trawling has protected much of the most sensitive benthic communities and streamer lines in longline fisheries have been much more effective at protecting marine birds than setting aside 30% of the area as a no-take area.

Picture of Max Mossler

Max Mossler

Max is the managing editor at Sustainable Fisheries UW.

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One Response

  1. Nice to see greater detail and quantification of the trade-offs between biodiversity and yield in specific fisheries. Other aspects (impacts, objectives and implementation) were discussed further and in a broader context in this paper from 2010:

    Brander, K. (2010). Reconciling biodiversity conservation and marine capture fisheries production. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 2(5–6), 416–421. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cosust.2010.09.003

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