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Research for Fisheries Management

The conservation and sustainable use of fisheries resources is central to NOAA's mission. The Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 added broad new mandates for managers regarding population status, defining essential fish habitat (EFH), and mitigating the effects of fishing on EFH. NURP-supported research aids resource managers by providing information to develop refined population surveys of managed species, improve EFH designations, and develop management measures for mitigating the effects of fishing. Use of technical and mixed gas diving, human occupied submersibles, remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), and other advanced underwater technologies by scientists allows research to be conducted at spatial scales unattainable using traditional methods (e.g. trawls, grabs, etc.).

To ensure that the information needs of resource managers are being met, NURP headquarters and its regional Centers coordinate directly with these managers at both the headquarters and regional levels in NOAA Fisheries and NOAA's National Marine Sanctuary Program, as well as with regional Fisheries Management Councils and other federal, state, and local resource managers. By coordinating directly with those responsible for managing fisheries, NURP is able to identify and address short- and long-term research needs that will help improve the information base upon which management actions are made.

Listed below are some examples of how NURP has responded to the research needs of NOAA resource managers:

I. Management Objective - Improving Population Assessments
NOAA Fisheries has the responsibility to assess the population status of exploited species and provide information from these assessments to decision-makers to address short-term management information needs.

NURP's research improves population assessments by using an in-situ approach to develop estimates of population status for species that occur in habitats (e.g., coral reefs, rocky boulders) that are difficult to sample with traditional methodologies. Traditionally, fisheries assessments have been conducted by sampling with towed or fixed fishing gear (e.g. trawls, nets, etc.) to develop population estimates or indices. By using advanced underwater technologies (e.g. mixed gas diving, ROVs, submersibles, etc.), scientists are able to develop a more precise estimate of fish populations in difficult sampling areas. Examples of NURP's use of advanced underwater technologies to conduct population assessments are:

SCUBA allows direct observation of reef habitatsA. Coral Reef Fishes - Coral reef fish species are difficult to assess and their distributions within reef landscape are highly variable. An intensive NURP-funded population survey of reef fishes in the Florida Keys by Nitrox divers (divers using a gas mixture that reduces nitrogen exposure) produced the first synoptic fishery-independent assessment of reef fish populations for use by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council. Data provided to the Council showed that particular species occur within certain habitat types and may be used to stratify future surveys for key species.

Yelloweye rockfishB. Alaskan Rockfish - Yelloweye rockfish (Sebastes ruberrimus) are part of a diverse group of rockfish species that occur in the Gulf of Alaska and are targeted by commercial fishermen. Fishery independent trawl surveys have been used in the past to assess the status of rockfish populations, but high variations in catches reduced the precision of such estimates. Yelloweye rockfish live in a rugged habitat, much of which cannot be trawled. NURP-funded studies using a human occupied submersible have demonstrated that the abundance of yelloweye is highly correlated with habitat type. This specific funding was key to improving population biomass estimates for this species. This method is now the standard assessment technique for this commercially important species, resulting in more refined population estimates and reducing uncertainty in management decisions.

American Lobster is sized up using paired laser from an ROVC. The American Lobster - The American lobster (Homarus americanus) is the most economically valuable species in the U.S. and has been a sustainable fishery for over 150 years. The questions plaguing resource managers are why is the fishery still sustainable and what steps should they take to ensure the fisheries sustainability in the future? To help answer these questions, a NURP-funded study surveyed lobster distribution and abundance where egg-bearing females had been previously caught in deep waters along Maine's coast. Using an ROV, two sites were identified with high densities of reproductive phase lobsters. It was found that the distribution of larval lobsters, captured using traditional plankton sampling, is highly correlated with distribution of females that released larvae into the water column. Results from this study suggest that directed conservation of reproductive lobsters could enhance the sustainability of this critical resource (More Info). Project Summary: 1997, 1999, 2001

II. Management Objective - Defining Essential Fish Habitat (EFH) for Managed Species
Understanding the linkages between habitat attributes and the survival, growth, and reproduction of fish is essential for designation, conservation, and management of EFH. Prior to the 1980's, most of what we knew about the habitat requirements of fishes on the outer continental shelf and slope comes from studies conducted at large spatial scales (e.g., correlation of trawl catches with regional scale sediment maps). Additionally, most of the knowledge we have regarding how individual fishes interact with their surrounding landscape come from scuba diving studies conducted in habitats of less than 150 feet (i.e., shallow coral reefs, seagrass meadows, and kelp forests).

NURP's research defines essential fish habitat for managed species using advanced underwater technologies. Advanced underwater technologies allow scientists to use an in situ approach to define essential fish habitat at deeper depths, as well as actually "see" what the fishes habitat and interaction with the habitat is either directly using submersibles and technical diving or virtually with ROVs and seafloor observatories. NURP-funded research using advanced underwater technologies has been used directly by resource managers, including the regional Fishery Management Councils, for designation of EFH and for assessing the impacts of fishing on those attributes of habitat identified as important for survivorship of managed species.

Laser line scan image of schooling fishA. New Technologies for Habitat Mapping - Low light penetration and poor water clarity have permitted only a limited understanding of the role of deeper seafloor habitats and the fish that use these habitats. By illuminating the seafloor with a laser from a height that affords a synoptic view, laser line scan (LLS) technology is able to overcome the limitations to mapping imposed by deeper seafloors. NURP and NOAA's Office of Ocean Exploration sponsored a field test off the coast of central California to determine the success of LLS in mapping seafloor habitats. LLS was able to image the seafloor landscape at a resolution that allowed for delineation of seafloor landscape features and quantification of the composition and distribution of fish that use these landscapes as habitats. It was found that LLS provides a synoptic view not possible from conventional video or photographic systems and a level of detail much greater than that available through acoustic techniques (sidescan and multibeam sonar mapping; More Info). Project Summary: 2001

A school of snappers gathers near a rocky outcroppingB. Hawaiian Bottomfish - Beginning in the late 1980s, concern regarding the status of the Hawaiian Bottomfish Fishery began to escalate over a decrease in commercial landings. Fishermen were fishing more and yet catching less fish. In 1998, the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources implemented Administrative Rule Chapter 13-94 to set regulations to conserve remaining bottomfish stocks. During the process of creating these rules, the realization was made that although the Hawaiian Bottomfish Fishery has been in existence for hundreds of years, there was relatively little known about their habitat requirements. In an effort to better understand what was so special about these fishing sites, a partnership was formed in 1998 between the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources and NURP, NOAA Fisheries, NOAA Oceans & Coasts, and the University of Hawaii's Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology. This cooperative study, using the Pisces submersibles operated by NURP's Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory, has aided in defining the habitat characteristics that attract Hawaiian bottomfish, i.e., a seafloor with numerous cavities that provide shelter and attract their prey. The results from this study will be used by the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources in determining future management actions to conserve Hawaiian bottomfish stocks (More Info).

Nassau GrouperC. Nassau Grouper - Nassau grouper (Epinephelus striatus), once among the most important fishery species in the Southeastern U.S. and the Caribbean region, have been overfished in the U.S. and are currently protected from fishing in state and federal waters. For the past fifteen years, NURP has aimed at helping managers protect or rebuild Nassau grouper stocks in the Caribbean by conducting research that documents how the Nassau grouper interacts with its landscape. In December 2003, NURP-supported research played a major role in the Bahamas Department of Fisheries decision to close, for the first time, the fishing season for Nassau grouper in Bahamian waters. Closed seasons have also been declared for periods in 2004 and 2005 when spawning aggregations are likely to form. Ongoing Nassau grouper research in the Bahamas will evaluate the effectiveness of the closed season (More Info). Project Summary: 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003

III. Management Objective - Mitigating the Effects of Fishing on EFH
Commercial fishing appears to be the most widespread form of human disturbance to continental shelf and slope habitats. It has been documented that bottom contact fishing gear (e.g., trawls, dredges, gillnets, long lines, traps) can affect seafloor communities to some degree. However, the relationship between fishing gear type and habitat is only known for a few habitats and much is still to be learned about this across the U.S. Furthermore, knowledge of the recovery rates of seafloor habitats from fishing impacts is needed for the range of habitats occurring in the U.S. EEZ. Such information will allow resource managers to better predict the effects of particular management options on EFH.

NURP-funded research assesses the effects of fishing on seafloor habitat and has been used by resource managers, including the regional Fishery Management Councils, to evaluate the effects of fishing on benthic habitats and to develop management strategies.

Deepwater Oculina reefs provide a habitat for assorted fishesA. Oculina varicosa - The ivory tree coral, (Oculina varicosa), a deepwater coral found off the east coast of Florida, forms dense bushes that have built the Oculina banks over the past 8,000 years and serve as spawning and nursery habitat for many species, including economically important snappers, groupers, and amberjack. In 1994, the established importance of the ivory tree coral contributed to the designation of the Oculina Banks Habitat Area of Particular Concern (OHAPC) as one of the first deepwater coral banks in the world where trawling, traps, long-lining, and dredging were to be banned. In 2001, NURP and NOAA Fisheries funded research that documented the condition of the OHAPC from a manned submersible that reached depths of 200 to 300 feet. These observations revealed, for the first time, that an estimated 90% of the original Oculina varicosa habitat within the OHAPC had been reduced to unconsolidated rubble. Such knowledge has been used to evaluate and improve regulatory actions in the Oculina Research Reserve, including new enforcement efforts and indefinite continuation of the closure to bottom fishing (More Info). Project Summary: 2001, 2002, 2003

Bottom fishing gear impactsB. Atlantic Cod - Georges Bank has historically supported a robust population of Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua). During the early 1990s, precipitous declines in adult populations and lack of recruitment impeded recovery of this greatly overfished population. NURP, in collaboration with NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Geological Survey, conducted ROV and camera sled observations of seafloor habitats on the Northeast Peak of Georges Bank. These observations revealed that while heavily fished sites had a bare gravel pavement, areas that had been closed to fishing for a portion of time exhibited partial recovery of the seafloor community, and areas closed to fishing for a longer period of time on the Canadian side of the Bank supported a highly diverse seafloor community. Such communities have been shown to enhance survival of juvenile cod by providing shelter from prey. Managers used these observations and data to create the Juvenile Cod Habitat Area of Particular Concern (More Info). Project Summary: 1998, 1999

Tilefish hides in the shadows of a boulderC. Tilefish - A significant tilefish (Lopholatilus chamaeleonticeps) commercial fishery exists, particularly in waters off the Mid-Atlantic coast. The potential effects of bottom trawling gear on the benthic habitat of tilefish are being investigated in a NURP-funded study on the continental shelf and upper slope of the New York Bight. Using an ROV, the project has been assessing the impact of both episodic and chronic trawling activity on the habitat structure and community inhabitants of tilefish burrows and associated juvenile nurseries. Because of impending regulations that could impose significant bottom fishing gear restrictions at the shelf and upper slopes of the New York Bight, this study could have significant impact on future management actions. Project summary: 2001, 2002, 2003

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Updated: March 9, 2007