We have benchmarks for how to manage fisheries sustainably but what if the assumptions that go into setting those benchmarks are wrong?
In a previous study led by Diego Barneche and published in 2018, a research team looked at reproduction in more than 300 fish species. They found that contrary to a general perception, reproductive output did not increase in proportion with the size of the fish. Instead, the bigger the fish the disproportionately more eggs it produced. The mathematical term for this is hyperallometry.
This has clear implications for fisheries management and led Dustin and colleagues from Australia, USA and Germany to investigate assumptions around reproduction in fisheries management models.
Thirty-two of the world’s largest fisheries use management models that assume a proportional increase in reproductive output and fish size. These models estimate reproductive output from the total biomass of fish mature enough to spawn. This is because they are assuming that two 1 kg fish have the same reproductive output as one 2 kg fish. But the study led by Diego found that this was unlikely — 95% of the fish species they looked at had a hyperallometric relationship between size and reproduction — meaning the one big fish will produce many more eggs than the two smaller fish put together.
Does it matter? Well, yes. Dustin and his colleagues calculated that, for these fisheries, catches are set too high — in most cases, catches are twice what they should be in order to achieve the desired level of replenishment.
So, what happens when we get the biology right? Importantly, challenging assumptions about reproduction not only has ramifications for setting catch limits but has the potential to reset the way we manage fisheries. The team produced models that looked at retaining the largest and most reproductive members of the stock; through a temporary closure or protected area, or by setting size limits that focused on mid-size fish — leaving juveniles and the largest individuals unharvested.
The benefits of these different approaches vary depending on the species. Atlantic cod, for example, would benefit by switching to a fishery closure (either in space or time) with a predicted increase in long-term catch of ~25%
Dustin and his team acknowledge there are difficulties (both practical and social) with these approaches but also emphasise that any strategy that protects and retains larger fish in a population should provide a pay-off. Their models had some general assumptions of their own, however. When modelling fisheries that included protected areas where no fishing was allowed, they assumed that adult fish moved very little while larvae had the potential to replenish areas a long way away.
To check whether their results were too optimistic they did a more detailed study of the coral trout fishery in the Great Barrier Reef where they input data on larval movement. This reduced the catch increase from ~32% to ~16% suggesting that the more generic approach may overestimate benefits of fishery closures by ~12%.
A benefit of 16% is still non-trivial. Overall the results suggest that including hyperallometric reproduction in fisheries management models allows underused management tools such as marine protected areas to outperform traditional tools. This study highlights the role of reservoirs of large, highly reproductive individuals within a fishery.
This research is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.