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Understudied Marine Species Project

imagePI: Dr. Ellen Pikitch, Institute for Ocean Conservation Science, and Dr. Elizabeth A. Babcock, University of Miami

The population status of nearly half of the fish stocks governed by U.S. fishery management plans has never been determined. Most of these unassessed stocks are classified as “minor” by the National Marine Fisheries Service because they have been deemed relatively rare, or defined as not economically valuable.

But these definitions are not based in data. Because these fish species have not been studied, it is not known whether their population size is naturally small, or, whether they were once abundant and now substantially depleted due to exploitation. The economic value of these fish may also be misrepresented. Many of the unassessed fish species are routinely sought-after by commercial fishing operations, and many that are not considered economically important today may be deemed more valuable in the future. In addition, these fish already have a strong ecological value, yet many are regularly caught as undesirable “bycatch” and discarded (dead) back into the sea. Furthermore, virtually nothing is known about many other fish that live in U.S. waters but are not listed in fishery management plans at all. Thus, despite federal management of the nation’s commercially important fish species for several decades, the status of the vast majority of marine life living in U.S. waters remains a mystery.

Ongoing research of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science will determine the number and type of unassessed and understudied species in ocean ecosystems in the United States, and will create a much more detailed understanding about them. Since 2005, researchers have been working to determine which understudied species face particular risk from overfishing, and the proportion currently in an overfished condition. Our initial analyses of available data from commercial fishery observers indicate that we will be able to identify numerous fish species that have not been assessed yet are frequently caught in significant quantities in commercial fishing operations, and often discarded.

The Institute’s analyses are likely to have far-reaching policy implications. If clear evidence of overfishing or stock depletion is found, this could trigger management actions under the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act, such as the development of overfishing and rebuilding plans to bring fish stocks to stable, sustainable levels.

A better understanding of the status of understudied species – which undoubtedly play important roles in the ecosystem and the marine life food chain -- will be highly useful for developing fishery management strategies that sustain entire marine ecosystems rather than solely target top commercial and recreational species.

More Information

Elizabeth Babcock, PhD
Dr. Beth Babcock is a Research Assistant Professor at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. She has an undergraduate degree in Biology and Environmental Science from the University of California, Berkeley, and received her PhD from the University of Washington's School of Fisheries. After completing her PhD, Beth worked for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) as the first Constantine S. Niarchos Fellow in Marine Conservation, and did a project on bycatch of endangered Humboldt penguins in the gillnet fishery out of Punta San Juan, Peru. She then served as Chief Scientist for the Pew Institute for Ocean Science, which is now the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science.

Most of her work at WCS involved quantitative analysis of fisheries data, for various assessments of the status of marine fish populations. She also co-developed a model to evaluate the sustainability of a fishery, called a Bayesian surplus production (BSP) model and applied it to large coastal sharks, swordfish, and white marlin. Much of her work focused on improving the treatment of scientific uncertainty in management decision making, through the use of Bayesian decision analysis. At the Pew Institute, Beth continued working on fisheries data analysis and stock assessment, including Bayesian methods and decision analysis. She is now involved in a project on ecosystem-based fisheries management.
Dr. Babcock's Faculty Page

Ellen Pikitch, PhD page

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