In a wooden guesthouse on the fringes of a lake in the northernmost region of Norway and five hundred metres from the Russian border, the seeds of synthesized science for a new ICES expert group were recently sown.
The Working Group on the Integrated Assessments of the Barents Sea (or WGIBAR) was the freshly-formed collective in question. Comprising 12 researchers from the two countries either side of that geographical line, WGIBAR convened to weave the fabric of data and up-to-date knowledge that will enable Integrated Ecosystem Assessments (IEAs) to be carried out in the Barents Sea.
When the initiative for WGIBAR's establishment was launched from the Norwegian side last September, it seemed logical given the schemes that had, up to that point, been both present and absent in the region.
"There is a Norwegian management plan already in place in the Barents, but no joint management plan," explains group co-Chair Edda Johannesen. "And although there is joint work on monitoring and stock assessment, we lack a common arena for multidisciplinary discussion for better ecosystem considerations."
Advantageously for ICES and its network, the decision was also the right one for other reasons. "It seemed timely, since Integrated Ecosystem Assessments have a great place in ICES' new science plan," Johannesen adds.
Although several fish populations there, including the cod, were hit by overfishing during the 1980s, they have bounced back to mid-twentieth century levels and are now, according to ICES, sustainably harvested. Today, fishing retains its worth in the Barents, still representing the area's most important anthropogenic influence on the ecosystem.
From a management and assessment point of view, however, exploitation of the stocks now exists in an age where ICES advice now needs to take in broader examinations. Building up science-based advice therefore requires a decisively modern approach – one which regards interconnected aspects of the fish's habitat and environment, cohabiting sea biota, and associated natural and man-made influences. In short, IEAs. And that's where WGIBAR comes into the picture.
With the Barents Sea set to experience these influences – through both direct human activity like fishing and exploration for energy and indirect drivers like climate change – there is plenty of data for WGIBAR to study in the context of IEAs. Amongst the data compiled by the group in Kirkenes were that on the Barents' atmospheric conditions. According to Johannesen, this climate aspect is twofold.
"There is a large variability in the climate there as well as a warming trend. The last decade has been the warmest on record for the Barents Sea and there are rapid changes in the ecosystem, so we need to follow the situation closely. Also, in 2012, there was the smallest ice covering on record. Climate is a very important driver that we need to consider."
Johannesen goes on to point out another equally significant dimension. "In recent years oil and gas operations have increased and therefore, the impact from shipping as well as from oil and gas boring will probably rise in the future and therefore should also be considered."
The move towards IEAs and an ecosystem-based approach to fisheries management also constitutes putting predator-prey interactions under the microscope. One instance is that of cod (predator) and capelin (prey), which has been accounted for as part of the provision of advice on Total Allowable Catch (TAC) for many years. Whilst the effect of capelin on cod growth as well as on its ability to reproduce has been documented, capelin now appear to be less important to cod in this new, warmer period. Using survey and diet data, the latter through available data on cod stomachs, WGIBAR will investigate this further.
Having drawn up a three-year work plan, WGIBAR's immediate concern during its first meeting is with assembling datasets like those on cod. These will help the members describe the changes and fluctuations in the Barents over time.
"We have extensive data from several surveys, the most comprehensive being the joint IMR-PINRO ecosystem one. We will use this data to extensively follow the recent changes in the Barents Sea, and, in the cases where historical data is available, compare with earlier periods," notes Johannesen.