After I graduated college, I spent 3 years bouncing around as a fisheries research assistant with the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). Of 18 total months of seasonal work, I can remember 3 days where we did work related to improving an area’s ecology. Two of those days were spent sampling fish populations after habitat restoration work was completed. One was spent helping a volunteer group remove invasive plants from a pond and river system.
That means that the other approximately 17 months and 28 days were spent either monitoring a fish population, stocking fish or talking to people about stocking fish, analyzing data collected when monitoring fish populations, or fixing equipment used to monitor fish populations. Oh, and sometimes we monitored water quality, or repaired equipment used to monitor water quality.
This type of management regime relies on collecting population data using the same methods every year, hoping to obtain enough information to know if the population is healthy or unhealthy. Workers also take samples to determine age and growth rates of populations, so they know approximately how much food is available to the fish.
If a certain fish population is deemed “unhealthy,” then steps are taken to restrict human use of the species—shorter fishing seasons, bigger size limits, reductions in fish you can keep, etc.
The restrictive measures can successfully restore fish populations if the negative influences were caused by humans directly removing them from their environment. If they were caused by some other interaction like pollution, competition with other species, climate change—then all that work was useless.
It’s a very passive way to manage environmental issues—yet it’s common practice in most government agencies.
In the 1980’s and 1990’s, when pressure on fisheries was high and stocks weren’t managed as well, this was a good strategy. Now, with reduced pressure from commercial fishing, and with shrinking government budgets for environmental agencies, I think it’s time to change the focus of our environmental policy.
It’s important to know what population densities are, but ocean and inshore systems are so dynamic that small changes like a decrease in freshwater river input to a bay, a new, warmer water species adapting to a more northerly habitat, or a prime predator moving into a new area, can have huge impacts to a large ecosystem. When you consider all these unpredictable factors influencing a large system, modeling for the future is almost impossible. It’s Nassim Taleb’s “Black Swan” theory applied to natural systems.
If modeling to predict future events and influences is close to impossible, can we better use limited government funds and personnel to improve the environment? I think we can. Monitoring and restricting direct human activities usually results in slight gains (because there are too many other natural influences), no change, or continued degradation.
On the other hand, you could see definite positive gains by restoring a habitat–for example, enlarging a small bridge culvert that restricts water flow to the upstream side of an estuary. This will restore proper flow to an area, increasing water quality and providing a better habitat for inshore plants and animals. This, in turn, provides more food, more breeding grounds, and better water quality in the bays and sounds that the estuary feeds. These improvements will create a more robust ecosystem that can recover better from things like pollution, overfishing, and climate change. By creating more and better habitat for fish breeding, we, in turn, fight overfishing by “making more fish.”
So, how can we relieve the burden of monitoring from governments and allow them to focus on increasing environmental resilience? New and vastly improved technologies like underwater cameras towed behind fishing trawlers, drones, remote controlled underwater vehicles (ROV’s) all have great potential to make monitoring economical, more accurate and less destructive. Monitoring work can be turned over to private contractors and volunteer groups. States could offer “citizen scientist” certification courses for group leaders, and send full time staff out to make sure the work is done properly. Commercial fishermen who need economic support can be enlisted to help monitor fish populations.
Once government employees are relieved of monitoring duties, they can take a more active stance in habitat restoration. Our seasonal and full time government (DEP) staff can be “repurposed” to provide habitat restoration and improvement support. The government could take a more active role in navigating the legal permitting hurdles of more complex restorations like dam removal. These types of projects require lots of resources and are expensive and complicated for public advocacy groups—the state and federal government could help reduce the costs of these projects.
So many projects abound that have obvious benefits–nothing needs to be measured and we know for sure what actions need to be taken to improve the habitat.
Looking back to our culvert example–if we know that it restricts flow and kills an important breeding ground, why not enlarge it? It would be as sure of a “victory” as there could be.