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Research to Yield New Tools for Ecosystem-based Management

A Message from Richard Merrick,  Chief Science Advisor for NOAA Fisheries
November 10, 2015

Keeping close tabs on the health of marine ecosystems is a task that is, like the oceans themselves, huge and difficult to manage. But this task might soon get a bit easier thanks to an international team of scientists led by Jason Link, NOAA Fisheries senior scientist for ecosystem management.

Marine ecosystems face a number of stressors: overfishing, pollution, eutrophication, loss of habitat, and many more, as well the increasingly evident effects of climate change and ocean acidification. In a recent paper in Trends in Ecology and Evolution, Link and his co-authors describe a new method of tracking the cumulative effects of these stressors at the ecosystem level.

This technique emerged when the authors observed fundamental, underlying patterns in the way energy flows through marine ecosystems. These patterns can be observed in the way biomass accumulates at different levels of the marine food web, and when plotted graphically, they appear as characteristic big “S” and hockey stick curves.

Now that we know what these patterns look like, we can monitor them, and we will be able to see when they begin to break down. They also work in reverse: as ecosystems recover, we can see these patterns reacquire their characteristic shape.

These patterns, and the fact that they occur in marine ecosystems of all types, were not previously recognized. Yet despite their novelty, the data needed to observe them are already available or relatively easy to acquire.

Because they capture the cumulative effects of multiple stressors at the ecosystem level, we can use these patterns to create new tools for ecosystem-based management. For instance, we might use them to generate ecosystem indicators that fishery managers can apply to set ecosystem-wide catch levels. Restoration ecologists might use them to determine how well their interventions are working and when their job is done.

More generally, we can use them to track the effects of climate change and ocean acidification—effects that might otherwise surprise us because they are outside the bounds of anything we’ve observed before.

This discovery will have a great number of practical applications for managing the nation’s living marine resources. And it is a great example of how we at NOAA Fisheries, in collaboration with our partners, are working to promote the sustainability and resilience of marine ecosystems and the communities that depend on them.

Richard L. Merrick
Director, Scientific Programs and Chief Science Advisor for NOAA Fisheries