Federal Fisheries Management:
Additional Actions Could Advance Efforts to Incorporate Climate Information into Management Decisions
GAO-16-827: Published: Sep 28, 2016. Publicly Released: Sep 28, 2016.
As the climate changes and ocean temperatures rise, the abundance, distribution, and life cycles of fish in federally-managed ocean fisheries may change too. Federal agencies managing ocean fisheries have limited information to determine exactly how climate change might harm specific fish populations, and may not always understand the potential effects. The National Marine Fisheries Service is in the early stages of implementing its strategy to increase the use of climate information in fisheries management.
We made two recommendations to help NMFS better manage climate-related risks to fisheries.
Photo of Atlantic cod and a description of potential causes of recent declines in cod abundance.
What GAO Found
The Department of Commerce's National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and eight Regional Fishery Management Councils (Council) have general information on the types of effects climate change is likely to have on federally managed fish stocks but limited information on the magnitude and timing of effects for specific stocks. They also face several challenges to better understand these effects, based on GAO's analysis of NMFS and Council questionnaire responses, NMFS and Council documentation, and interviews with NMFS and Council officials. For example, NMFS officials said that northern rock sole may adapt to warming ocean temperatures more easily than other fish species, but it is unknown how such temperatures may affect the timing of the fish's life cycle events, such as spawning. NMFS and Council officials identified several challenges to better understand potential climate change effects on fish stocks, including determining whether a change in a stock's abundance or distribution is the result of climate change or other factors, such as overfishing in the case of Atlantic cod.
NMFS developed a climate science strategy in 2015 to help increase the use of climate information in fisheries management. The strategy lays out a national framework to be implemented by NMFS' regions but does not provide specific guidance on how climate information should be incorporated into the fisheries management process. An NMFS official said that developing such guidance has not been an agency priority, but as knowledge on climate change progresses there is a more pressing need to incorporate climate information into fisheries management decision making. Developing such guidance would align with federal standards for internal control and may help NMFS ensure consistency in how its regions and the Councils factor climate-related risks into fisheries management. In addition, NMFS has not developed agency-wide performance measures to track progress toward the strategy's overall objectives, a leading practice. NMFS officials said they are waiting to finalize regional action plans for implementing the strategy before determining whether such measures may be necessary. GAO reviewed the proposed measures in NMFS' draft regional action plans and found that they aligned with some key attributes of successful performance measures. But, most of the measures did not contain other key attributes, such as measurable targets. By incorporating key attributes when developing performance measures and assessing whether agency-wide measures may also be needed, NMFS may be in a better position to determine the extent to which the objectives of its strategy overall are being achieved.
Why GAO Did This Study
NMFS and the Councils manage commercial and recreational marine fisheries that are critical to the nation's economy. The effects of climate change may pose risks to these fisheries that could have economic consequences for the fishing industry and coastal communities, according to the 2014 Third National Climate Assessment.
GAO was asked to review federal efforts to address the effects of climate change on federal fisheries. This report examines (1) information NMFS and the Councils have about the existing and anticipated effects of climate change on federally managed fish stocks and challenges to better understand these effects and (2) efforts NMFS has taken to help it and the Councils incorporate climate information into fisheries management. GAO analyzed responses to its questionnaire from all NMFS regions and the Councils, analyzed seven nongeneralizable fish species selected to reflect variation in the potential effects of climate change, reviewed relevant documentation, and interviewed NMFS and Council officials.
What GAO Recommends
GAO recommends that NMFS (1) develop guidance on incorporating climate information into the fisheries management process and (2) incorporate key attributes of successful performance measures in the regional action plans and assess whether agency-wide measures for the climate science strategy may be needed. The agency agreed with GAO's recommendations.
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Recommendations for Executive Action
Comments: The Department of Commerce and NOAA agreed with this recommendation. On December 2, 2016, the Department of Commerce provided GAO with a letter stating that NMFS will continue to work with the Regional Fishery Management Councils and other stakeholders to identify how to best incorporate climate-related information into the fisheries management process. The letter also identified a number of NMFS' ongoing and planned efforts related to this goal. We plan to follow-up with the agency in Summer 2017 to obtain an update on the status of these efforts and the extent to which they address our recommendation.
Recommendation: To help NMFS and the Councils incorporate climate information into the fisheries management process and better manage climate-related risks, the Secretary of Commerce should direct National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Assistant Administrator for Fisheries to develop guidance to direct the NMFS regions and Councils on how climate information should be incorporated into different parts of the fisheries management process.
Agency Affected: Department of Commerce
Comments: The Department of Commerce and NOAA agreed with this recommendation. In a letter to GAO on December 2, 2016, the Department of Commerce identified the following two actions that NMFS plans to take to address this recommendation by the end of calendar year 2017 - (1) NMFS will review the draft regional action plans and take appropriate action to ensure, to the extent possible, the performance measures in the final plans include key attributes of successful measures; and (2) NMFS will assess the need for agency-wide measures to track and evaluate achievement of the Strategy objective, and develop such measures as appropriate. We plan to follow-up with the agency in Summer 2017 to obtain an update on the status of these efforts.
Recommendation: To help NMFS and the Councils incorporate climate information into the fisheries management process and better manage climate-related risks, the Secretary of Commerce should direct NOAA's Assistant Administrator for Fisheries to, in finalizing the regional action plans for implementing the NOAA Fisheries Climate Science Strategy, (1) incorporate the key attributes associated with successful performance measures in the final performance measures developed for the plans and (2) assess whether agency-wide performance measures may be needed to determine the extent to which the objectives of the Strategy overall are being achieved, and develop such measures, as appropriate, that incorporate the key attributes of successful performance measures.
Agency Affected: Department of Commerce