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New approach to assess sustainability of reef fish

A new study helping to improve how sustainability is measured for popular reef fish could help better assess the eco-friendly seafood options at the dinner table.

A team of researchers at the University of Miami (UM) Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and NOAA Fisheries tested their newly developed fishery risk assessment method on groupers and snappers in the Florida Keys to determine if these tropical reef fish are being managed sustainability.

The new approach developed by UM Rosenstiel School Professor Jerald Ault and colleagues uses fish size-structured abundance data to evaluate fisheries sustainability status, instead of the traditional “catch-per-unit effort” method that requires long-term information collected by fishers to assess the health of a fishery.

The researchers then applied the length-based assessment to six key species in the Florida Keys region — black grouper, red grouper, coney, mutton snapper, yellowtail snapper and hog snapper — to evaluate the sustainability status of the fisheries.

They found that only one species — coney — was within the sustainable range with a less than a 35 percent risk score. The other five species had estimated sustainability risks of greater than 95 percent.

While the focus of this study was to develop a general length-based risk analysis methodology appropriate for data-limited fisheries worldwide, says the researchers, the results of the sustainability risk assessment for the species evaluated were in line with previous analyses for reef fishes in the Florida Keys and surrounding regions.

“The ecological and economic importance of tropical reef fish makes their sustainability a key conservation concern,” said Ault, the lead author of the study. “The next challenge will be to evaluate the sustainability status of the over 50 principal exploited species in the Florida reef-fish community.”

The new risk analysis framework can evaluate the sustainability status of tropical reef fish stocks when traditional catch data are not reliable or available and provide a frame of reference to help balance sustainability risks with management decisions.

In a separate but related study, Ault and colleagues developed a new fisheries-independent ecosystem monitoring survey to estimate biomass of deepwater snappers in the Hawaiian Islands. This new survey provides critical data for the risk analysis framework to assess fisheries sustainability in Hawaii.

“Our results help to improve the science and decision-making capacity for fisheries managers, and promotes the sustainability of coral reef fisheries subject to fishing and environmental changes,” said Ault. “These combined methods will greatly improve the capacity and efficacy of fishery management for shallow and deep water coral reef fisheries in Florida, the U.S. Caribbean, and the U.S. Pacific Islands.”

The new methods developed are designed to ensure the quality of commercial and recreational fishing today and into the future, said Ault.

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