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​​​​​​​​​​​ The Nature Conservancy believes that a healthy ecosystem forms the basis for current and future production and that reorienting fisheries management to account for ecosystem interactions and damages is a key step in achieving sustainable fisheries.  Shifting from traditional fisheries management that focuses on individual fish stocks to an ecosystem approach implies limiting fishing’s impact on ecosystems while contributing to the sustainable development of local communities. Translating the concept of an ecosystem approach into concrete management policies is not easy, but the Conservancy's practical strategies and partnerships — combined with the growing acceptance of the ecosystem approach among policymakers and fishers over the last few years — can clearly contribute to more sustainable fishing worldwide.

For decades, commercial fisheries have been managed by conventional approaches that have focused on maximizing yields of individual stocks rather than maintaining the health of marine ecosystems. This management approach has resulted in species being exploited faster than they can regenerate, has caused widespread degradation of marine habitats, and put the livelihoods of fishing communities at risk.  In recent years, NGOs, academia and policy makers, have generally accepted and begun to promote a framework for the sustainable management of fisheries. This framework revolves around the central importance of managing fisheries as an integral part of the ecosystem, rather than just as a collection of fish stocks to be exploited without regard to the system which nurtures them.  This has come to be known as the “ecosystem approach” to fisheries. Current understanding recognizes that maximum production of fish stocks cannot occur where marine ecosystems have been degraded, since these environments affect the reproduction and survival rates of fish.

Applying and ecosystem approach to fisheries requires a combination of strategies and tools tailored to specific fisheries and their political and socioeconomic context. The Nature Conservancy is currently pioneering projects (e.g., California’s Central Coast, Maine’s permit banking) that provide examples of how aspects of such an ecosystem approach can be implemented in collaboration with a range of partners including governments, fishers, industry, and local communities. These strategies include:

  • Establishing networks of marine protected areas that serve as refuge for species and protect critical habitats — such as important fish spawning areas — so that fish stocks can recover.
  • Restoring important habitats — such as oyster reefs and clam beds — that provide not only shellfish harvests to people, but also form important habitats for fish and other marine creatures.
  • Partnering with fishers to improve our understanding of the interconnections between species and ecosystems — so that licensing, regulations, monitoring regimes, and fishing gear can be refined to minimize the damage to ecosystems.
  • Reducing the number of boats and fishing quotas for specific species in agreement with local communities and fishers.
  • Helping give local communities more say and control over their marine resources, providing the needed incentive to manage fish stocks for future generations.
  • Putting in place economic policies and instruments that give fishers incentives to reduce fleet sizes and damaging gear, and that reward responsible fishing practices.