Since the landmark EU directive was brought into effect seven years ago, and with it the quest to put in place the necessary measures to achieve Good Environmental Status (GES) by 2020, the MSFD has seen ICES pool its expertise to help facilitate this. Paramount in this process has been bringing together scientific data and knowledge from fisheries and environmental surveys and assessments at an appropriate scale to demonstrate what can readily be achieved from such an approach.
The focus in this respect has typically been on the challenges of integration, what form it would take, and the practicalities of bringing the two types of scientific knowledge together. A recently-formed expert group, however, have set out to put the talk into practice by attempting to integrate environmental monitoring data and fisheries data and actually running an assessment.
ICES Working Group to Demonstrate a Celtic Seas wide approach to the application of fisheries related science to the implementation of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (WGMSFDemo), launched in January this year, plans to use the wealth of fisheries-related science, knowledge, and data collected under the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) to perform an ecosystem assessment of a handful of MSFD descriptors in the Celtic Seas. This constitutes OSPAR Region III, made up of the Irish Sea, the Celtic Sea, and the areas west of Ireland and Great Britain, respectively.
“The group has two aspects. One is how to make integrated surveys a reality and the second one is how to then provide something which gives you an assessment of the main descriptors, which are essentially fisheries-based,” explained Carl O’Brien (UK), who co-chairs WGMSFDemo with Jean-Paul Lecomte (France) and Eugene Nixon (Ireland).
“We decided to have a look at an assessment based on fisheries data in the Celtic Seas, see what can actually be done with three like-minded countries and the data that has been generated. It’s also a way of seeing how the three countries’ vessels could be used in a more consistent, coherent and cost-effective way.”
“To show something like this in a demonstration assessment, three countries is just about the right number and the Celtic Seas in just about the right scale in terms of both the ecosystems and the potential measures that could be meaningfully applied,” stated Nixon.
According to Nixon, other reflections have since inspired the chairs to give the concept momentum.
“With existing models, a Member State evaluates the area under its own jurisdiction, then submits results to the Commission and the European Environment Agency (EEA) where, among other things, it is combined into an overall regional seas assessment. Taking fisheries data, collected uniformly across the Celtic Seas, it makes much more sense to run an assessment for the entire region in the first instance rather than separating the data, running individual assessments and then recombining these into an overall assessment. While this may seem scientifically obvious, there are MSFD legislative responsibilities for each Member State that can’t be overlooked.”
Another influencing factor was the potential wider scope of the group’s assessment beyond Descriptor 3, which requires commercial fish and shellfish to be within safe biological limits. “ICES fully appreciates that however you manage the fisheries, the measures are going to have an effect on descriptors 1 (on biodiversity), 4 (foodwebs), and 6 (seafloor integrity), so it would make sense to do an ICES assessment across the ecoregions,” said O’Brien. Indeed, WGMSFDemo is now working on expanding the work to all relevant descriptors.
“One of the main drivers was a 2014 workshop that brought together the fishing mortality and biomass assessments for each of the ICES ecoregions under the MSFD; together with the Mediterranean and Black seas. The idea is if ICES can do it for Descriptor 3, then we should explore what exactly we can do for the other descriptors.”
Although the primary goal of the initiative is to conduct the assessments, one important by-product was hit upon through the group’s efforts to produce MSFD-ready data from ICES DATRAS database. This came about through the need to calculate indicators such as the large fish indicator – a measure to show the proportion by weight of fish over a specified length – in the Celtic Seas.
“When you look at DATRAS and the large fish indicator there are anomalies and the data need to be cleaned up,” said O’Brien. “In most cases the data have only been quality assured and controlled for specific fisheries management tasks. If you want to use it for other sources of metrics and indicators than those for which the data were originally collected, DATRAS has to be cleaned up. You want to have confidence in it.”
“The data was collected and is fit for one purpose – stock assessments,” added Nixon. “But there are errors in there in terms of making it MSFD-ready. Marine Scotland and ICES have taken on this work, which will be done this year ready for assessment next year. There will be a manual prepared and code to re-run the clean-up process for subsequent years. So they’re standardizing the process to get the data MSFD-ready.”
Integration for the group stretches beyond the merging of the two types of survey data though. ICES facilitated a workshop in May this year where the Directorate-General for Maritime Affairs (DG Mare) and the Environment (DG ENV) amongst others got together to look at linkages between Descriptor 3 and the other descriptors. For O’Brien and Nixon, this event represented a breakthrough moment in the process.
“What we were doing in the workshop, which didn’t just focus on the fisheries aspect but also covered the likes of marine litter and noise, is the first realization of how to achieve an integrated survey. Up until now, there has been a discussion about what integration would look like without actually having a way of doing it.”
“There’s a need for integrated surveys rather than mere collaboration, which means you carry on doing the fisheries but if you’ve got time then you measure some environmental indicator. It’s actually changing the way you do the survey so it’s properly integrated,” added O’Brien.
Despite the immediate practicality of the group’s forward-thinking efforts – results will feed into OSPAR’s intermediate 2017 assessment and support both OSPAR and EU member state assessments – the demo project has also allowed Nixon and O’Brien to grapple with some of the bigger questions, including those of Good Environmental Status and management more generally.
“Instead of assessing stocks ever year, you might assess them every three or five years, depending on their state. With integrated monitoring, there’s a similar question with the option to then evaluate frequency. Do you need to do it every year?” asked O’Brien. “It depends on the descriptors and indicators.”
On top of that, it means the group needs to be open and adaptive to unforeseen hurdles, as with DATRAS, along the way.
“The DATRAS spin-off is something no-one had thought of. So in a sense it’s only when you take the science and start to implement it that you realize there are other things to do,” explained Nixon.
“It’s learning by doing. Until you go and start doing it, you don’t know what the issues are. And that’s the first, I’m sure there will be many more we uncover.”
Cliffs of Moher, Co. Clare, Ireland; photo: Voyagerix, Fotolia