One evening in 1990, on the train from Ipswich to Lowestoft, a stranger approached me, said that I looked something like a scientist, and introduced himself as Mark Tasker, also on his way to the first meeting of the new Working Group on Ecosystem Effects of Fishing. For the rest of that week, we joined a couple dozen scientists crammed into a meeting room in “The Fisheries Laboratory” and tried to figure out how to discharge our Terms of Reference.
Not only was WGECO new, the idea of WGECO was new. How does one go about providing scientific advice on the ways that fishing may affect marine ecosystems directly and indirectly? Fortunately, we had an organizing task – prepare the input on fishery effects to the first OSPAR Quality Status Report (a fairly novel idea in itself at that time) – and the able leadership of Henrik Gislason to help us along.
The early meetings of WGECO were spaced 18 months apart because no one thought the topic would be rich enough – or progress would be fast enough – to justify meeting annually. That prejudice was quickly proven wrong. WGECO meetings were soon filled with bodies addressing diverse questions from Member Countries, DG Fish, DG Environment, OSPAR, HELCOM, and ourselves. Products were rich in content: a lot of original analyses were being done in the meetings.
The turning point
The middle of the 1990s was a turning point for WGECO. A major EU research project on the impacts of mobile fishing gears on the North Sea and Irish Sea (IMPACT II) had been completed, with more than 40 recommendations for management actions. ICES had been asked to peer review the project report, especially the degree to which the management recommendations were supported by the research results. The job fell to WGECO, and its report was used largely intact as the basis for ICES advice, establishing WGECO as a clear, authoritative, and balanced voice that applied sound science to complex advisory questions.
Hard on the heels of the work on trawl and dredge impacts, the Annexes to the Bergen Declaration gave WGECO impetus for another leap forward. Not all the Ecological Quality Objectives in the Annexes were specifically about fishery impacts (for example, some addressed eutrophication), but all the ones that did not fit directly into the mandates of other existing ICES Expert Groups found their way to WGECO. Consequently the latter half of the 1990s and early 2000s were focused on investigating, if one is applying an ecosystem approach, what makes good ecosystem indicators; what needs to be considered in setting conservation reference levels; what parts of ecosystems need to have management objectives and indicators?
The great synthesizer
WGECO became a hub for taking information from other specialized Expert Groups, synthesizing it, and placing it in an advisory context, and for disseminating to the broader expert community sound and feasible approaches for addressing the ecosystem effects of much more than just fishing. As was the case from the outset, primary publications and ICES Cooperative Research Reports flowed from the WGECO efforts, as well as the annual WG reports.
It has been a logical progression from “ecosystem indicators” and “ecosystem objectives” to “ecosystem assessment” approaches. Since the latter half of the 2000s, WGECO has worked consistently at developing a sound and practical framework for actually using the products of earlier efforts to evaluate and provide the basis for advice on ecosystem status and trends, and options for future integrated management actions.
WGECO is far from alone in these efforts, but its track record for outputs that are both scientifically sound and practical to implement foreshadows a continued central role for WGECO for the next 20 years, as the ecosystem approach becomes the basis for policy and management throughout the ICES area.