New Ecosystem Approach to Bring Brighter Future To Europe’s Oceans

Marine scientists, managers and stakeholders from 16 countries, including representatives of the fishing industry, marine environment, oil, gas and shipping, met in Dublin Castle over the last two days to debate how best to ensure a brighter future for our oceans. The conference, which was hosted by the Marine Institute, was the 13th Dialogue Meeting held by the world-renowned marine science body ICES – the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea. It addressed the topical issue of ‘Advancing Scientific Advice for an Ecosystem Approach to Management of the Oceans’.

In opening the conference, Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources Mr. Dermot Ahern T.D., said, “During the first few months of Ireland’s presidency, we have steered through new legislation on the protection of coral reefs in the Darwin Mounds and secured agreement on a major plan to deal with the unacceptably high levels of by-catches of small cetaceans in certain fisheries.”

“In placing these two initiatives high on our Presidency priorities we are in many ways acknowledging the new reality in Europe that marine issues are about more than just fish stocks”.

Dr Peter Heffernan, CEO of the Marine Institute, highlighted his organisation’s commitment to an increased level of participation by Ireland in international marine science initiatives.

“Thanks to government support over the last decade for major marine science infrastructure projects such as research vessels and shore facilities, as well as programmatic developments, Ireland is now in a springboard position to apply knowledge-based innovations in sustainable resource management of the ocean,” he said.

John Farnell, Director of Conservation Policy in the European Commission’s Directorate General for Fisheries, highlighted the need for ‘good data’ in order to give credible advice. He said, “The accuracy of data about catch and effort is in the hands of the fishing industry. Until fishermen understand the need for accurate data and the fact that withholding data is not an advantage, but a fundamental handicap to an assessment of what is going on in the sea, then this problem will remain with us”

Fishermen were urged to “tell the truth” about their catches, while scientists were asked to produce more credible, transparent advice; and managers to allow greater inclusiveness of stakeholders in the advisory process. The consensus was that there is an urgent need for greater collaboration among scientists, managers and industry stakeholders in order to produce more accurate data and advance an ecosystem approach to management of our oceans.    

Neils Wichmann, Danish Fisherman’s Association, said that there was a common perception among the fishing industry that “more science equals less fish” and that “scientists collect data to use it against us.”

The Marine Institute’s Director of Fisheries Science Services Dr. Paul Connolly, who is also Chair of the ICES Management Committee on the Advisory Process said,  “The ecosystem approach is perceived by many as an abstract concept. However, if we break it down into its individual components, we can see we are already implementing it in many areas of our work. We should therefore strive to build on what we have already achieved, rather than re-invent the wheel.”

The Marine Institute is well represented at ICES and provides chairmen for five ICES Working Groups – the highest number in the history of the State and an indication of Ireland’s growing status in marine science.

Recommendations from the various working groups at the meeting reflected a lively debate, which was welcomed by all concerned as an opportunity for sharing goals and ideas. The meeting confirmed the need for clear and effective communications between scientists, managers and stakeholders and positive proposals were put forward as to how this communication might be further developed. The full implementation of the ecosystem approach to management will not happen overnight. However, there are many examples of the ecosystem approach being applied on a small scale, and it was agreed that we should build on these examples rather than set up something new. ICES is already implementing the first steps. The consensus of the meeting was that this will be ‘an evolution not a revolution’ in the management of our seas.