MLMA Master Plan 9. Adaptive Management

The MLMA requires that fishery management be adaptive (§7056(g)(opens in new tab)). Successful adaptive management detects and responds to changing environmental or socioeconomic conditions within an appropriate time scale. The requirement applies across the various issues addressed by the Master Plan, such as determining the appropriate level of management in the continuum, use of MSE, management of bycatch, and approach for adapting to climate change. This chapter seeks to provide a focused discussion of the mechanics of adaptive management, specifically how it should be integrated into ESRs, rulemakings, and FMPs, and how it relates to emerging fisheries.

The MLMA defines adaptive management as a policy that seeks to improve management by viewing management actions as tools for learning, even if they fail (§90.1(opens in new tab)). The MLMA stipulates that management systems should:

  • Ensure that decisions are adaptive and based on the best available scientific information (§7056(g)(opens in new tab)).
  • Ensure that management is proactive and responds quickly to changing environmental conditions and market or other socioeconomic factors, and to the concerns of fishery participants (§7056(l)(opens in new tab)).
  • Periodically review the management system for effectiveness in achieving sustainability goals and for fairness and reasonableness in its interaction with affected stakeholders (§7056(m)(opens in new tab)).

Adaptive management is a continuous cycle (Figure 6) that applies to any aspect of management, whether the objective is meeting socioeconomic objectives, managing bycatch, or having effective stakeholder engagement. Most often, however, the process is applied to maintaining the sustainability of the target stock.

Circular diagram representing the adaptive management cycle. The phases of structured decision making are define the problem, identify objectives, formulate evaluation criteria, estimate outcomes, evaluate trade-off, and decide. Then the phases of learning are implement, monitor, evaluate, adjust.
Figure 6. A generalized view of the adaptive management cycle. Blue arrow represents the systematic identification of the problem, objectives, and the associated decision-making, while orange arrow represents the learning associated with implementation (adapted from Birgé et al. 2016).

Adaptive management requires effective stakeholder engagement as outlined in Chapter 4 and well-structured and supportive frameworks described in an ESR or FMP. The following section focuses on the supportive structures and mechanisms that can be included in management documents.

Adaptive management approaches and structures

FMPs require the identification of the goals for the fishery, strategies for achieving those goals, metrics by which management success will be measured, and process for assessing and adjusting strategies over time. Since FMPs afford greater opportunities for stakeholder engagement, they are more conducive to the creation of comprehensive and adaptive management strategies. ESRs can be used to articulate the adaptive nature of current management and research efforts.

Chapter 5 and Appendices H-K and L describe in detail how the use of reference points, HCRs, targeted data collection, and MSE can enable adaptively responding to new information. More generally however, FMPs should identify the following when incorporating adaptive management:

  • A research protocol that explains what data will be collected, how observations will be analyzed, and how results of the analysis will be used in management decision-making related to implementation of the selected management strategy.
  • The process for strategic review to update understanding of the managed system and revisit selection of the management strategy. This review includes updating models, assumptions, and uncertainties about dynamics of the managed system and comparing the performance of alternative management strategies considering this updated understanding.
  • Uncertainty regarding the current state of knowledge and the implications of that uncertainty in the design and evaluation of management strategies.
  • The alternative management strategies that were considered prior to selecting the preferred approach for implementation. MSE can be a valuable tool for accomplishing this.
  • Timelines and triggers for re-considering management choices. Clarifying the timelines and triggers improves predictability.
  • The necessary institutional capacity for monitoring and analysis.
Two circular diagrams representing the adaptive management processes used by the Ecosystem Restoration Program and MPA Management Program.
Adaptive management is also used by CDFW in other contexts such as the Ecosystem Restoration Program (left) and MPA Management Program (right).

Current Fishery Management Plan strategies

The White Seabass and Spiny Lobster FMPs include specific examples of adaptive management that should be emulated where appropriate. The Department manages the White Seabass fishery with the assistance of the White Seabass Scientific and Constituent Advisory Panel (WSSCAP), which consists of representatives from the scientific community, recreational and commercial fishers, and NGOs. The FMP requires the Department and the WSSCAP to evaluate the status of the White Seabass fishery against six “points of concern” annually using fishery-dependent and fishery-independent data on recruitment if available. The Spiny Lobster FMP uses an “HCR toolbox” that describes a variety of indicators, considerations for interpretation, and a range of potential management responses. While it does not include a standing stakeholder body like the WSSCAP, its use of triggers, the toolbox approach, and targeted research and data collection provide a framework for effective adaptive management as well.

FMP covers

Experimental gear and emerging fisheries

Adaptive management can apply to the management of existing fisheries as described above, but also requires the availability of a policy pathway to address new fisheries and gear that emerge. To that end, the MLMA gives the Commission the regulatory authority to identify and govern these new fisheries. This section provides an overview of the existing pathway and considerations for experimental gear and emerging fisheries.

Experimental gear

Any fish species may be landed commercially unless fishing regulations are currently in place to restrict catches of that species (§8140(opens in new tab)). However, an experimental gear permit(opens in new tab) is needed for new types of commercial fishing gear and new methods of using existing gear that are otherwise prohibited. This is the case for new or existing fisheries in which experimental gear is used. Section 8606(b) states: “A permit may authorize the use of new types of commercial fishing gear and new methods of using existing gear otherwise prohibited by this code and may authorize that use or the use of existing gear in areas otherwise closed to that use by this code.”

The Commission’s issuance of experimental gear permits presents a good opportunity to strategically apply the steps of Figure 6. The Commission can be proactive and precautionary by requiring certain measures for the use of new gear type, including data collection and minimizing damage to the environment and other marine resources. The Commission may also revoke a permit if it finds that the fishery or gear is causing damage or creating conflict among user groups. If the experimental gear is ultimately approved for broader use, the fishery that results may then be managed pursuant to elements of the emerging fisheries policies referenced below.

Experimental crab fishery presentation

This downloadable presentation (PDF)(opens in new tab) is an example of information used in decision-making about experimental fisheries.

New fisheries using existing gear

The emerging fisheries provisions in the MLMA are aimed at fostering a proactive approach to management. The goal is to prevent such fisheries from growing faster than the understanding necessary to sustainably manage them. More specifically, the MLMA requires the Department and Commission to “encourage, manage, and regulate” fisheries that are perceived to be increasing. It also states that the Department shall closely monitor landings and other factors it deems relevant in each emerging fishery and shall notify the Commission of the existence of an emerging fishery (§7090(c)(opens in new tab)).

Section 7090(opens in new tab) of the MLMA defines an emerging fishery as:

  1. A fishery that the director has determined is an emerging fishery, based on criteria that are approved by the Commission and are related to a trend of increased landings or participants in the fishery and the degree of existing regulation of the fishery.
  2. A fishery that is not an established fishery. "Established fishery" means, prior to January 1, 1999, one or more of the following:
    1. A restricted access fishery has been established in this code or in regulations adopted by the Commission.
    2. A fishery, for which a federal FMP exists, and in which the catch is limited within a designated time period.
    3. A fishery for which a population estimate and catch quota is established annually.
    4. A fishery for which regulations for the fishery are considered at least biennially by the Commission.
    5. A fishery for which the Fish and Game Code or Title 14 regulations adopted by the Commission prescribes at least two management measures developed for the purpose of sustaining the fishery. Management measures include minimum or maximum size limits, seasons, time, gear, area restriction, and prohibition on sale or possession of fish.

The Commission adopted an additional set of criteria(opens in new tab) to determine whether a fishery qualifies as emerging (see: If the Commission designates a fishery as emerging, it has two possible courses of action. The first is to adopt regulations to limit catch or effort. If adopted, these regulations can stay in effect until an FMP is adopted. The second is to direct the Department to develop a new FMP. The Department may make a recommendation to the Commission regarding the best course of action based on the existing set of priority fisheries. Emerging fisheries are by nature data-poor, and tools such as PSA may be needed to inform management measures and strategies.


  • Application of the fishery management cycle described in Chapter 5 and Appendices H-K and L will advance adaptive management goals of the MLMA.
  • In particular, the Department should make strategic use of reference points and HCRs wherever appropriate and where resources allow.
  • ESRs should describe if and how current management is adaptive (see Chapter 3) and responsive to changing ecological, environmental, or socioeconomic conditions. This includes identification of any indicators considered in management, data collection efforts that inform decision-making, and any HCRs or processes in place to systematically consider new information.
  • In developing FMPs, the Department should include adaptive management mechanisms such as those employed in the White Seabass and Spiny Lobster FMPs.
  • As described in Chapter 11, climate change may be a catalyst for emerging fisheries going forward. However, prioritizing management effort is central to effective implementation of the MLMA. Therefore, when the Commission considers new fisheries or new uses of gear it should consider them in light of the criteria for evaluating new proposed priorities described in Chapter 2.

Photo at top of page: Fishing for crab off the California coast. (© David Hills, all rights reserved)