Treaty tribes bring better focus to our understanding of ocean habitat

The four treaty tribes on the Olympic coast and the federal government are standardizing  marine habitat analysis to improve management of their treaty-protected natural resources.

The new standard is called the “Coastal and Marine Ecological Classification Standard” (CMECS). From a story map on the project:

(CMECS) defines habitat by translating existing data sets into four components: water column, geoform, substrate and biotic attributes that, together, provide a more comprehensive understanding of actual habitats and their ecosystem function or value. The tribes’ goal with this effort is to introduce this standard for classification and evaluation of marine habitats, and their actual ecosystem value, in waters adjacent to the Olympic Peninsula. Once the utility of its application is successful in our management, we hope to facilitate further application of this tool in other areas along the West Coast.

Tribes are constrained by federal treaties to fish in certain areas. Because tribes can’t travel to wherever fishing is best in the ocean — unlike non-tribal fishermen — tribal managers must ensure that their limited fishing areas are carefully managed.

Current management processes used to define marine habitat and its ecosystem value were found to be inadequate for the tribe’s management needs. One example is the method for classifying Essential Fish Habitat (EFH) as required under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act for managed fishery stocks. Through the Pacific Fishery Management Council process, design and designations of EFH areas, especially groundfish EFH, were done with broad scale information sources that resulted in inferences of seafloor (substrate) type and biogenic species presence/absence (corals and sponges in particular) that had limited value when applied to biological life cycles.

So far the tribes and the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission with help from NOAA Sanctuaries  have analyzed two attributes: substrate and geoform. Continued work by the partners will lead to  better management of natural resources for everyone.