Overview Of The Sensitive Benthic Areas Ecological Risk Assessment Framework

In 2009, Fisheries and Oceans Canada published the Policy for Managing the Impacts of Fishing on Sensitive Benthic Areas under the auspices of the Sustainable Fisheries Framework. The purpose of the Policy is to help the Department manage fisheries to mitigate impacts of fishing on sensitive benthic areas (sea bottoms) or avoid impacts of fishing that are likely to cause serious or irreversible harm to sensitive marine habitat, communities and species. This national Policy applies to all commercial, recreational and Aboriginal fishing activities licensed and/or managed pursuant to the Fisheries Act and the Coastal Fisheries Protection Act, including fishing inside and outside of Canada’s Exclusive Economic Zone.

A key tool for use in the implementation of the Policy is the Ecological Risk Assessment Framework, which outlines a process for identifying the level of ecological risk of fishing activity and its impacts on sensitive benthic areas in the marine environment. The Department has developed this framework specifically for use in managing coldwater corals and sponge-dominated communities. Both are currently the focus of international efforts to reduce the impacts of fishing on benthic environments (e.g. Food and Agriculture Organization International Guidelines for the Management of Deep-Sea Fisheries in the High Seas, Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization Vulnerable Marine Ecosystem impact assessments), and hence they are among the most well understood from a management perspective.

The Ecological Risk Assessment Framework outlines a process whereby the ecological risk of fishing impacts is determined through the examination of two factors:

  1. consequence, which examines the anticipated degree of impact on a sensitive benthic area resulting from an overlap between it and the fishing gear, and
  2. likelihood, which examines the probability that the fishing gear will overlap with sensitive benthic areas.

Four levels of consequence have been outlined, each with an associated score (ranging from none (score 1) to high (score 4)). Similarly, likelihood has been categorized into four levels, also with an associated score (ranging from never [score 1] to regularly [score 4]). Based on the case-specific information collected for the assessment, scores for both consequence and likelihood of impact are determined, and then multiplied to determine the overall ecological risk score. For ease of interpretation, risk levels have been divided into three overall risk categories: low, moderate and high.

The development of management options are guided by the ecological risk level. Where the fishing activity presents a low risk to the benthic habitat, no additional management options are generally required. Where risk levels are determined to be moderate, additional management options may be required based on the specific circumstances of the fishery and benthic habitat being investigated. Examples may include changes to the fishing methods. Where the risk has been determined to be high, additional management options will usually be required. Examples include fisheries closures or gear modifications and/or restrictions. Options would be determined on a case-by-case basis, in consultation with stakeholders and Aboriginal groups, using existing processes that would be adapted to the specific circumstances.

It is essential to keep in mind that the Ecological Risk Assessment Framework examines only the “ecological” component of risk. Socio-economic factors would also need to be taken into consideration (utilizing other processes within the fisheries planning processes) before final management measures can be determined and implemented.