Data-driven tools trans­form our man­age­ment of oceans

The Washington Post - - CAPITAL BUSINESS - BY AN­DREW VAN DAM an­drew.van­[email protected]­post.com

The ocean is com­pli­cated. Our tools to man­age it are blunt.

We of­ten ap­proach the ev­er­chang­ing ocean as if it were a sta­tion­ary val­ley in a na­tional park. We close en­tire coast­lines and re­strict fish­eries to pro­tect a sin­gle species. We’re flum­moxed by wide-rang­ing mo­bile marine life and un­pre­pared for cli­mate change.

But a new gen­er­a­tion of datadriven tools bal­ances the needs of fish and fish­er­men and adapts au­to­mat­i­cally as the en­vi­ron­ment changes.

With the gov­ern­ment’s tow­er­ing stock­piles of ocean data, sci­en­tists can use weather and ocean chem­istry to pre­dict where fish­er­men are likely to catch their in­tended tar­gets, in­clud­ing sword­fish or tuna, and avoid pro­tected species such as marine mam­mals, sharks or manta rays.

Google and Face­book an­a­lyze data to pre­dict our be­hav­ior with un­nerv­ing pre­ci­sion. With dy­namic ocean man­age­ment, sci­en­tists use sim­i­lar strate­gies to pro­tect the areas where tur­tles, al­ba­tross or whales are most likely to con­gre­gate in a given day or hour.

The ef­fort al­lows reg­u­la­tors to close smaller areas of eco­nom­i­cally vi­tal fish­eries for shorter times. To pro­tect threat­ened leatherback sea tur­tles as they range far and wide in pur­suit of jel­ly­fish swarms un­der the cur­rent sys­tem, you’d have to close huge swaths of the Pa­cific Ocean.

“The whole struc­ture is an­ti­quated. It as­sumes a level of sta­bil­ity that is def­i­nitely not hap­pen­ing,” said dy­namic-man­age­ment pi­o­neer Sara Maxwell, who leads an ocean sus­tain­abil­ity lab at the Uni­ver­sity of Wash­ing­ton at Bothell. “The cli­mate is chang­ing. Fish­eries are not pre­pared.”

Un­less, of course, you cre­ate a flex­i­ble al­go­rithm that re­sponds to ocean con­di­tions and al­lows you to move clo­sures to the small areas where data show the jel­ly­fish — and the tur­tles that prey on them — are most likely to be found each day.

A ‘rev­o­lu­tion’

Dy­namic ocean man­age­ment is pow­ered by what oceanog­ra­pher El­liott Hazen of the Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion called a “rev­o­lu­tion” in avail­able ocean data and pro­cess­ing power.

“We can run these mod­els on our com­puter in min­utes to maybe an hour that would have taken us months 10 years ago,” Hazen said.

Hazen and his col­leagues de­velop “big data” tools like EcoCast, which com­pares ob­served lo­ca­tions of leatherback tur­tles, sea li­ons, blue sharks and sword­fish to satel­lite mea­sure­ments of ocean con­di­tions to cre­ate a daily map for the West Coast sword­fish fish­ery. The maps pin­point where fish­er­men are most likely to find sword­fish and least likely to en­counter tur­tles and other threat­ened species.

Sci­en­tists used track­ing data from thou­sands of in­di­vid­u­als as well as data from the in­de­pen­dent ob­servers who of­ten ac­com­pany fish­ing boats. Their ocean con­di­tion data in­clude satel­lite mea­sure­ments of ocean tem­per­a­ture, wind, moon­light, chloro- phyll con­cen­tra­tion, sea-sur­face height and eddy ki­netic en­ergy — a mea­sure of ocean tur­bu­lence.

The team seeks to limit by­catch — marine by­standers that are un­in­ten­tion­ally caught and some­times killed when fish­er­men are pur­su­ing their real tar­get — while lim­it­ing the losses of the fish­er­men and other busi­nesses. It’s a com­pli­cated cal­cu­lus.

By­catch ex­pert Eric Gil­man of Hawaii Pa­cific Uni­ver­sity showed in a newly pub­lished anal­y­sis that when fish­er­men adopted a hook shape de­signed to re­duce by­catch of sea tur­tles, by­catch of openo­cean sharks jumped — prob­a­bly be­cause the new hooks made it harder for the preda­tors to bite their way off the line.

Gil­man ar­gues that “piece meal” man­age­ment strate­gies don’t ac­count for how re­stric­tions will af­fect all species. Dy­namic man­age­ment could bal­ance the needs of many species. Gil­man, who is not af­fil­i­ated with the project, said EcoCast “holds tremen­dous prom­ise of mit­i­gat­ing by­catch of species of con­ser­va­tion con­cern while main­tain­ing eco­nomic vi­a­bil­ity.”

Typ­i­cal fish­ery-man­age­ment agree­ments are of­ten ham­mered out over years or even decades of dis­cus­sions be­tween reg­u­la­tors, con­ser­va­tion­ists and fish­er­men — by which point the sit­u­a­tion may have shifted.

“The re­sources you’re try­ing to con­serve or uti­lize are mo­bile,” Duke Uni­ver­sity’s Daniel Dunn said. “The en­tire en­vi­ron­ment is fluid. Try­ing to take data from many years ago and try­ing to draw a box around it and as­sume those re­sources will be in the same place — and will be many years from now — is kind of crazy.”

Fish­er­men’s friend

Dunn said the most im­por­tant piece of tech­nol­ogy for dy­namic man­age­ment isn’t the ad­vanced an­a­lytic tools; it’s the satel­lite phones and other de­vices reg­u­la­tors can use to com­mu­ni­cate with fish­er­men out on the wa­ter.

Reg­u­la­tors closed New Eng­land’s At­lantic scal­lop fish­ery to en­force the limit of floun­der by­catch so of­ten that fish­er­men lost be­tween $11 mil­lion and $19 mil­lion in rev­enue each year be­tween 2006 and 2009, fish­eries sci­en­tist Cather­ine O’Keefe cal­cu­lated.

In 2010, O’Keefe (now with the Mas­sachusetts fish­ery di­vi­sion) and Uni­ver­sity of Mas­sachusetts at Dart­mouth re­searchers be­gan col­lect­ing fish­er­men’s re­ports of where they caught the for­bid­den floun­der. She sim­ply pro­cessed the data and emailed it out to fish­er­men. The floun­der never closed the scal­lop fish­ery again. The floun­der-limit sys­tem changed in 2014.

These strate­gies rely on Amer­ica’s in­creas­ingly tech-savvy fish­ing fleets. Tools like EcoCast are an­other piece of data fish­er­men can eval­u­ate as they head out to sea. Un­like many re­stric­tions, these tools bring in­for­ma­tion of im­me­di­ate rel­e­vance: where to fish most suc­cess­fully and sus­tain­ably. “There’s wide­spread un­der­stand­ing that reg­u­lat­ing catch is es­sen­tial to hav­ing a sus­tain able fish­ing busi­ness,” said econ­o­mist Alan Haynie of NOAA’s Alaska Fish­eries Sci­ence Cen­ter.

If sci­en­tists can show where folks can avoid by­catch, “that’s the kind of thing that a lot of fish­er­men would be ex­cited about,” Haynie said.

It’s a mat­ter of in­cen­tives. Some­times fish­er­men need a nudge. A data-driven pro­gram in Hawaii, TurtleWatch, rec­om­mended fish­er­men avoid areas where the ocean was be­tween 63.5 and 65.5 de­grees — the tem­per­a­ture at which sea tur­tles were most of­ten en­coun­tered. It suc­ceeded be­cause there was a quota on by­catch — if they caught more than a few tur­tles, the en­tire fish­ery would be closed.

Columbia Uni­ver­sity econ­o­mist Jef­frey Shrader, a self-de­scribed “Pa­cific tuna guy,” showed in a re­cent work­ing pa­per that fish­er­men read­ily re­act to use­ful data.

Dur­ing El Niño and La Niña, the Pa­cific tuna haul used to plunge to a third of its reg­u­lar level. Af­ter NOAA be­gan pro­vid­ing de­tailed fore­casts of how those weather events would af­fect the fish­ery, “those big losses just dis­ap­pear,” Shrader said.

“In the 2000s, when the fore­casts were get­ting re­ally good, then we see there’s no profit lost es­sen­tially at all dur­ing El Niño events,” Shrader said. “There’s a real hu­man as­pect to this in terms of know­ing what the fish­ery needs, know­ing how to com­mu­ni­cate to the fish­ery in a way they’ll di­gest and find use­ful,” he added later.

“We can run these mod­els on our com­puter in min­utes to maybe an hour that would have taken us months 10 years ago.” El­liott Hazen, Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion

One of many ap­proaches

Maxwell, Dunn and Hazen em­pha­size that dy­namic man­age­ment won’t re­place tra­di­tional marine re­serves. Co­ral reefs can be set aside in per­pe­tu­ity. Un­like sea tur­tles or sharks, they aren’t in­clined to mi­grate.

“There’s ex­treme value in pro­tect­ing habi­tat,” Hazen said.

Dy­namic man­age­ment should be used in ad­di­tion to proven meth­ods for re­duc­ing by­catch, Gil­man said. Such meth­ods in­clude lights and bar­ri­ers to keep tur­tles and other an­i­mals out of nets, as well as mod­i­fi­ca­tions to the fil­a­ments, buoys and hooks used in line-based fish­eries.

Ac­cord­ing to O’Keefe, new ap­proaches are needed. Stan­dard man­age­ment tools “have not put an end to over­fish­ing or re­built fish­ing busi­nesses,” O’Keefe said. “Dy­namic ocean man­age­ment pro­vides flex­i­bil­ity.”

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