Model master

Creating models to test choices and consequences, Tony Smith AM has provided new tools for better fisheries management

Tony Smith

By Catherine Norwood

Mathematics and ecology may have been what first brought CSIRO chief research scientist Tony Smith to the seafood sector, but the human dimensions of his work are the ones to make the most lasting impression.

This includes the value of collaboration with other scientists within CSIRO, around Australia and internationally, as well as work with industry groups and managers, who have used his modelling tools to improve the sustainability of their fisheries.

For the past 27 years Tony Smith has worked in marine resource assessment and modelling as part of what is now CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere in Hobart. His research has underpinned the development of ecosystem-based management and harvest strategies for Australian and international fisheries. Methods and tools he developed are now routinely used to evaluate the effectiveness and trade-offs involved in different management strategies.

He began his career with a science degree at the University of Adelaide, with a strong marine science bent, followed by a PhD at the University of British Columbia in Canada, focusing on adaptive management of fisheries. A 10-year “diversion” took his mathematical and research skills to various other fields, including agriculture, epidemiology and entomology. Then in 1989 he returned to the fisheries fold, as a resource assessment modeller at CSIRO.

Fish stocks

“The focus of virtually all of my research over the years has been to support better decision-making and management,” Tony Smith says. In the case of fisheries, this began with the need to better understand specific fisheries and their dynamics.

One of his first challenges on joining CSIRO was modelling the newly discovered Orange Roughy fishery. “It was a bit of a gold rush at the time. There was very little understanding of the resource – either its productivity or stock size. We actually got on top of that quite quickly, but it was hard for managers to implement an orderly development of the fishery.”

From fish and their environment, his research has evolved over the years to incorporate more human factors. “We need to see fisheries as complex socioeconomic systems and try to understand the interplay between the human players, management processes, governance, ecosystems and stocks,” he says. “It is a major challenge, and it’s really important for getting better management in the long term.”

The first project to really bring home the ‘people factor’ to him was an evaluation of management options for the Southern and Eastern Scalefish and Shark Fishery more than a decade ago.

The fishery had already undergone considerable change, he says. Individual transferable quotas had been introduced in the early 1990s and other traditional management tools, such as fishing zones, gear limitations and effort limitations, had been downplayed. Despite the introduction of quotas, by 2004 the fishery was in quite bad shape ecologically and economically. “So we set out to understand what was going wrong,” Tony Smith says.

Ecosystems approach

This study was one of the first to adopt a management strategy evaluation approach at an ecosystem or whole-of-fishery level. The project team included researchers, managers, the fishing industry and environmental groups.

“In the South East Fishery we started evaluating a range of possible alternatives to manage this large, complicated fishery, which has about 30 quota-managed species. At the start of the study we labelled some options ‘blue sky’ as a kind of intellectual exercise, which we never dreamed would be implemented. But the eventual transformation of the fishery was not much different from that initial blue-sky scenario. It goes to show that sometimes looking outside the box can be fruitful.

“The big change was really coming up with a management system that took an integrated view of the whole fishery and not being afraid to bring back some of the traditional management tools.”

Today, management strategy evaluation is commonly used to analyse the effectiveness of everything from simple harvest strategies to complex ecosystem-based fisheries management. Tony Smith has been part of a small team of international scientists who have developed the concepts, tools and ideas around such evaluations for the fisheries sector.

Values and trade-offs

He says fisheries management always involves trade-offs between multiple, and often conflicting, objectives. Modelling helps to assess the potential effects of different management strategies – by playing ‘what-if’ scenarios using a model before trying out the changes on a real fishery.

“One of the key outputs of a management strategy evaluation is a trade-off table that says: ‘You can’t fully meet all your objectives, but here are the strategies that do a reasonable job of meeting as many as possible, without falling over entirely on any of them’. It highlights the trade-offs, so that the decision-makers are well informed.”

He says the management evaluation process brings home the interplay between all the actors – scientists, managers, environmental non-government organisations  and fishers – and just how the outcomes are determined by that interplay of actors and forces. Transparency and real stakeholder engagement are crucial, he says, in identifying the objectives, and in showing how different ways of managing a fishery might meet those objectives.

“There are a lot of motivating forces that drive people. We talk a lot about science-based management and evidence-based management, but values come into it as well, and people’s motivations. It’s not up to scientists to make those trade-offs, that is up to the people charged with management, but we can inform those decisions by providing these analyses and this information in a suitable way.”

Risk assessment

Another major project Tony Smith helped lead over many years has been the ongoing ecological risk assessments for species in Commonwealth fisheries for the Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA).

“We comprehensively reviewed the impacts of fishing on bycatch species and threatened species, and ecosystems for all of AFMA’s fisheries. That was a huge and very demanding project over five years, developing and improving tools and techniques, testing them out, and applying them. Some elements have continued and we have revisited fisheries we have assessed before – that’s part of the ongoing adaptive approach to fisheries management.”

From this work, the risk-assessment methods developed for AFMA have also been picked up internationally. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) has adopted a risk-based framework to assess fisheries as sustainable, building on the methods developed for AFMA.

In 2008 Tony Smith was appointed to the MSC’s technical advisory board, which provides advice on the chain of custody and scientific issues for seafood sustainability certification. He says one of the challenges for the MSC is trying to assess fisheries globally to the same standard while allowing for huge variation in the types of fisheries, the level of sophistication of the assessments, and the governance structures in different countries and in regional management bodies.

Future directions

While he remains involved with the MSC, Tony Smith is also a contributor to a new national initiative, the Centre for Marine Socioecology. The centre is a collaboration between the University of Tasmania, CSIRO and the Australian Antarctic Division focusing on current and future uses of Australia’s coasts and oceans.

It brings together expertise in physics, law, economics, biology, sociology and governance to consider the complex marine managementissues that are developing, including the use of marine resources to underpin food security. “It is in the process of getting underway, and I do think it is an interesting program of work, and one with a big future,” Tony Smith says.

Reflecting on his own career, he says his best advice for young fisheries scientists is to get the training and skills they need, and then to pick projects that interest them, and collaborate with others, including the fishing industry.

“Science really is a collaborative process, and it works best when you are working in teams. I have been fortunate to work with some fantastic people over the years. Forming those relationships has been part of the pleasure and the productivity of my work. There used to be a kind of divide between pure and applied science, and I have always seen myself in the applied science camp. The science is just as interesting and the opportunities to see it influence things and to see it put into practice also brings a lot of rewards.”

More information

Marine Socioecology