It’s the Habitat, Stupid

If coastal habitat degradation continues, our favorite fisheries will continue to decline no matter what regulatory measures are put in place.

The Rookery Bay restoration project in Southwest Florida will help restore tidal flow to vital juvenile fish habitat. Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve

There’s a simple truth that most anglers understand intuitively: a fishery is only as healthy as the habitat that supports it. This holds true in both fresh and salt water, from trout to tarpon, bass to bonefish. If the place where the target species lives is degraded by pollution, fragmented by development, or contaminated with dirty water, the fish population will inevitably decline and, in turn, so will the fishing.

In essence, habitat is the foundation of the fishery and if that foundation crumbles, it’s only a matter of time until the fishery collapses. One need only look at Florida’s Indian River Lagoon to see this tragic scenario play out in real time.

Why is Habitat Not Considered in Fisheries Management Plans?

Despite how critically important habitat is to the health of our fisheries, it has not historically been included in marine fisheries management plans. Instead, agencies have made regulatory decisions mainly based on catch and harvest rates, and estimates of fish populations and fishing effort. The amount and quality of habitat were not part of the equation. Why not? Because when this traditional system of management was implemented in the early 1900s, there was much less stress on the marine environment, in the form of coastal development, altered water flows, fishing pressure, and boat traffic. Back then, we weren’t concerned about running out of viable habitat. It probably didn’t even seem possible.

“It’s not that FWC doesn’t realize the importance of habitat to the fisheries they manage,” said Dr. Aaron Adams, BTT’s Director of Science and Conservation. “It’s that they — and every other marine fisheries management agency — don’t yet have a way to include habitat in how fish populations, and the fisheries they support, are assessed and regulated.”

To regulate our fisheries, agencies typically rely on traditional means, such as instituting seasonal closures and setting harvest and slot limits. These certainly have their place in management plans but if habitat is not also incorporated, our fisheries will continue to decline regardless of the regulatory measures we put in place. We must change our approach if we’re to ensure our fisheries’ long-term health and sustainability. That’s why the Florida-based conservation organization Bonefish & Tarpon Trust (BTT) has been collaborating with Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) for more than a decade to integrate habitat into marine fisheries management plans.

“It’s not that FWC doesn’t realize the importance of habitat to the fisheries they manage,” said Dr. Aaron Adams, BTT’s Director of Science and Conservation. “It’s that they — and every other marine fisheries management agency — don’t yet have a way to include habitat in how fish populations, and the fisheries they support, are assessed and regulated. That’s what BTT has been helping to develop. We still have a long way to go, but we’re making real progress.”

FWC took a major step forward when it announced earlier this year that, for the first time, it will be begin using habitat and water quality data to assess and regulate fisheries. “Redfish are the first species that will benefit from this new approach,” said Dr. Adams. “FWC has created numerous new management regions, which take into account fish populations as well as water quality and habitat concerns. For example, the Indian River Lagoon has such severe water quality and habitat problems that nearly all fishery species are suffering. For this reason, FWC has designated redfish catch-and-release only in the Indian River Lagoon.”

A Focus on Fish Habitat

Juvenile tarpon rely on the mangrove-lined ponds, creeks and rivers of southern Florida. Loss of mangroves is a real threat to Florida’s tarpon fishery. John Rowan

This new focus on habitat is coming at a critical time. Florida’s healthy habitat is in short supply and the stresses on it will continue to increase as the state’s population continues to grow. Florida Bay has already lost a third of its seagrass — vital habitat for snook, tarpon, redfish, and bonefish — and Charlotte Harbor has lost nearly 60 percent of its mangrove habitat, while the number of Florida Keys flats classified as “severely degraded” from propeller scarring has increased a whopping 90 percent in just the last 20 years.

But this urgent issue of habitat loss and degradation stretches far beyond the Sunshine State, and it was a major focus of BTT’s 7th International Science Symposium and Flats Expo, a two-day event in early November that brought together resource managers, scientists, and fishing guides from the across the U.S. and Caribbean Basin to advance conservation of the flats fishery and the habitats that support it. By incorporating habitat into marine fisheries management, Florida can lead the way for other states and neighboring nations that have not yet begun make this important shift. And the new management approach to redfish can also be applied to snook and other economically important gamefish.

Restoring Florida’s Fish Habitat

Anglers release a redfish in the Everglades. Ongoing habitat restoration projects hope to improve redfish stocks in Florida. Greg Dini

Along with collaborating with FWC to include habitat in management plans, BTT is focused on conserving Florida’s remaining healthy habitat and restoring habitat that has been degraded. In the Florida Keys, BTT is working with the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary to ensure that shallow water habitats are adequately protected in its Restoration Blueprint. And in Southwest Florida, BTT is working with partners on plans to restore tidal flow to Rookery Bay, a multi-year project funded by the State of Florida and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. The restoration will benefit Florida’s snook and tarpon fisheries, as well as numerous other species.

“Fish biologists have long realized that habitat is the most important factor for fisheries health and sustainability,” said Dr. Adams. “In fact, a State of Florida fish biologist stated this way back in 1958. But thus far the fisheries management structure has not been able to accommodate habitat. Now we’re at a critical point which is why we’re working with FWC and others to create a new habitat-focused paradigm for fisheries management.”

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