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NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-AFSC-294

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Reality-based marine protected areas for the eastern Bering Sea


In this paper, we present another example of finding holistic guidance for systemic management; in this case, it involves defining the portion of ecosystems to be established as protected areas. As in previous cases, reality-based management is carried out by mimicking natural examples of sustainability. Although our emphasis is on marine protected areas (MPAs), the approach is one that can be applied in the protection of any area or ecosystem on the planet.

To provide a specific example, we have chosen the eastern Bering Sea ecosystem and the management of fisheries in regard to MPAs. Thus, the management questions that can be addressed are exemplified by: "What portion of the eastern Bering Sea ecosystem should be designated as areas where fishing is prohibited?" For this example, the consonant research question (to guide the relevant science) is: "What portion of the eastern Bering Sea ecosystem are areas where each species of marine mammal does not consume resources?" Answering this question, we quantitatively characterize natural patterns of sustainability both within the greater eastern Bering Sea ecosystem as well as for 21 smaller ecosystems. These patterns provide guidance for the holistic (reality-based) and sustainable management of fisheries involving the portion of each ecosystem to be closed to fishing. Similar patterns for other areas (in either marine or terrestrial settings) would be used for guidance of the kind found within this study.

We conclude that roughly 33% of each of the marine ecosystems in our study should be placed in protected status (designated as MPAs). However, based on the likelihood of a broader pattern, it appears that the portion of an ecosystem to be set aside in sustainable protected status depends on the size of the ecosystem; it will probably be found advisable to set aside larger portions of larger ecosystems. Another natural pattern indicates that, for the eastern Bering Sea, setting aside one single area in protected status would likely suffice.

We also conclude that a far more necessary measure in fisheries management in this ecosystem would be the reduction of harvest rates even though establishing MPAs remains as a crucial part of fisheries management. The pattern-based options for the portion of the eastern Bering Sea ecosystem to be set aside as MPAs are quite broad and do not reveal any notable abnormality in current fisheries management. In contrast, reality-based patterns in consumption rates among other species of mammals occupying this ecosystem indicate that current harvest rates are very abnormal and large reductions in harvest rates are needed in our take from individual species, species groups and the entire ecosystem in order to achieve sustainability. Current harvest rates, as considered in conventional management practices and based on necessarily incomplete data, are all obviously abnormal/unsustainable in parallel with many other aspects of current forms of management.

Further research is needed to specify, reveal and characterize the consonant patterns that will provide information for holistic guidance for the specific timing and precise location of MPAs where fishing would be prohibited in the eastern Bering Sea.

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