Ten years of advancing assessment methods for data-limited fish stocks

Until recently, fisheries science was unable to inform decision-makers on the status and potential of data-limited fish stocks because we lacked suitable assessment methods. Since 2010, ICES has turned this picture around.
Published: 9 October 2020

​​ICES WKLIFE series develops and advances methods for stock assessment and catch advice for data-limited stocks, focusing on the provision of sound advice rules that are within ICES MSY framework.

As the tenth edition of WKLIFE​ takes place, we speak to co-chair Carl O'Brien about the journey so far, as well as to first time participants to discover why they take part.

Carl O'Brien, WKLIFE Co-chairCefas (along with Manuela Azevedo, Portuguese Institute for the Sea and the Atmosphere) 


If you look back to 2010, when ICES first began to explore approaches on advice for data-limited stock, how easy has the journey been to today, when ICES is seen as a world leader in developing and applying methods to assess data-limited fish stocks?

In the years preceding 2010, ICES advice was becoming less relevant to the management issues of its clients; specifically, the declining number of data rich stock assessments and the increase in qualitative advice for so-called data poor stocks. 
A radically different approach was needed and WKLIFE was established – initially to meet for two/three meetings to advance scientific methods and advisory approaches for data-limited (data poor with life-history information) stocks. 
A decade later and with WKLIFE meeting for the tenth time this week, the journey has been difficult at times but ably supported by both ICES community and more widely outside – stakeholders, ICES clients for advice, and environmental NGOs.  

10 years into this process, what challenges are there for WKLIFE?
Challenges remain for the future - combined modelling of data-rich, data-moderate and data-limited stocks; with an obvious next step being modelling approaches to test data-limited rules in a multi-species/mixed fisheries setting.  
The future looks bright for ICES leadership in this area and I anticipate similar progress with these emerging challenges as WKLIFE has had to-date with their single species modelling and advice.

Why are you participating in WKLIFE as it enters its tenth year?
Several conflating factors have made my attendance this year to WKLIFE possible. It may be the bright side of the Covid, virtual meetings make for easy attendance.  
Some years ago, I participated in work related to Descriptor 3 of the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD). During that time, there was considerable work done for stocks without reference points - to develop methods and approaches on how to assess them against the MSFD Good Environmental Status criteria. These are stocks that fall into ICES categories 3 to 6, stocks that are at the core of WKLIFE's work. Since then I’ve been following WKLIFE's work closely. I joined DGMARE two years ago, and I’m unsure if any of my colleagues did participate in WKLIFE in the past. I have a quantitative background that enables me to follow WKLIFE work – although sometimes things can go a bit beyond my immediate understanding. But if there wasn’t a challenging aspect to it I might not feel so motivated to participate!

How will your participation contribute to your work in DG-MARE?

My current role in DG-MARE includes the provision of scientific support to the implementation of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). In a nutshell, my participation should support DG-MARE policy units understanding ICES annual catch advice. 
DG-MARE is a key client of ICES scientific advice, and in this sense, being aware of emergent or new methodologies and approaches, as well as its caveats and flaws, is crucial to help formulating advice requests and anticipate possible future avenues of work.
Regarding data-limited stocks, ICES work is a reference for the works of other jurisdictions with relevance for the EU and hence for DGMARE. Thus a good comprehension of what is being done in WKLIFE features as a very important added value for DGMARE while participating in discussions elsewhere. 

How do you view ICES development of stock assessment methods and catch advice?
The extent of what ICES does is astonishing! It is not something that one can capture by just following ICES advice. The number of expert groups that provide input and developments with relevance for stocks assessment and catch advice is rather impressive. But since it is science based work that we are talking about, there is always room to do more, or maybe to do it differently, when seeking new knowledge to explain facts. I’m thinking about, for example promoting multispecies assessment, evolving the methods to provide mixed fisheries advice, the inclusion of genetics and genomics in support of the formulation for catch advice.
Generally speaking, I would say continue promoting the holistic ecosystem approach. Going beyond single stock advice, or at least single stock assessments, to a multispecies approach with the inclusion of ecosystem drivers. It would definitely represent a significant leap ahead in the formulation of catch advice, and consequently support furthering one of the core principles of the CFP – the implementation of an ecosystem approach to fisheries management.

Jenni Grossmann, Science and Policy Advisor, Fisheries, ClientEarth

How will your participation contribute to the work of ClientEarth? 
One of the key topics I work on is the setting of fishing limits based on scientific advice provided by ICES. Unfortunately, fishing limits are still often set too high, especially for data-limited stocks. Our analysis shows that decision-makers exceed scientific advice more often when less information is available. 
This highlights how important it is to improve stock assessments and move towards MSY-based advice if we are to ensure sustainable fishing limits across the board. WKLIFE X plays a key role in improving the scientific basis for fishing limits for data-limited stocks. This week’s discussions have been really interesting for me to get a better understanding of the scientific challenges and possible solutions, get up to speed with the state of the art and virtually ‘meet’ key scientists in the field.


Jan Horbowy, ICES Advisory Committee Polish member, National Marine Fisheries Research Institute​

Why are you participating in WKLIFE as it enters its tenth year?

I am interested in some of the methods developed within WKLIFE for data-limited situations. I was recently working with the BONUS INSPIRE ​project on the evaluation of flounder stocks in the Baltic, and we developed a method to estimate Fmsy using survey based stock-recruitment relationship. The approach was published and I was invited to present results of the paper to the group.


Lisa Borges, Fisheries consultant, FishFix
Why you are taking part in WKLIFE as it enters its tenth year?
I have followed the work of WKLIFE through its 10 years, its research and innovation in new methods, and standards for data-limited stock assessments. However, other commitments have prevented my previous participation. As this year's workshop takes place online, I was finally able to participate -  a positive aspect of the impact of the pandemic.
How will your participation contribute to your role as a consultant?
Firstly, it will refresh my knowledge on stock assessment models and its assumptions and limitations, but more importantly it will increase my understanding on what is behind ICES advisory process for data-limited stocks. A lot of my work as a consultant involves analyzing the work and advice from ICES and other international organizations in the context of fisheries sustainability certifications.

How do you hope to contribute with your expertise?
I hope my work following the implementation of the Common Fisheries Policy and the Landing Obligation can provide insights into the assumptions used in stock assessment models but particularly in the Management Strategy Evaluation testing of Harvest Control Rules.

What is your view on ICES development of stock assessment methods for stock assessment and catch advice?
I think ICES does a huge amount of work keeping methods updated but also in the continuous testing of its rules to ensure advice is, and continues to be, precautionary and in line with international sustainability goals.
I think there is still work to be done in trying to incorporate new data and information, particularly from emergent technologies, in stock assessment groups. This is one issue highlighted at Working Group on Technology Integration for Fishery-Dependent Data (WGTIFD) which I co-chair with Brett Alger. And as WKLIFE is specific to data-limited stocks, it provides the perfect opportunity to start!



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Ten years of advancing assessment methods for data-limited fish stocks

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