The basis of an ecosystem approach to fisheries (EAF) is to plan, develop and manage fisheries in a manner that addresses the multiple needs and desires of societies, without jeopardizing the options for future generations to benefit from the full range of goods and services provided by marine ecosystems.
The ecosystem approach is an extension of the conventional principles for sustainable development to cover the ecosystem as a whole. The aim is to ensure that, despite variability, uncertainty and likely natural changes in the ecosystem, the capacity of the ecosystem to produce food, revenues, employment and, more generally, other essential services and livelihood, is maintained indefinitely for the benefit of the present and future generations.
NAFO began the implementation of an ecosystem approach to fisheries management in the years following the publication of the FAO Guidelines on Deepsea Fisheries. In addition to the traditional stock assessment of commercial fish species, NAFO also required advice regarding vulnerable species and habitats. In response, the Scientific Council established a new Working Group on the Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries Management (WG-EAFM), which began meeting 2008, to identify and delineate marine benthic habitats subject to significant adverse impacts and in need of protection. This Working Group aided in changing the NAFO Conservation and Enforcement Measures to prohibit bottom fishing in a number of areas where VME indicator species were known to occur in high densities, and placing stocks of forage fishes, such as Capelin in Div. 3NO, under long-term moratoria, recognizing the important role they play in the food-web.
In 2013 the working group changed its name to the Working Group on Ecosystem Science and Assessment (WG-ESA) and in recent years, importance has been placed on encounter thresholds with sponges and corals, ecological interactions between cod, redfish and shrimps, and comprehensive lists of VME indicator species and VME elements discussed.
In addition a joint Commission and Scientific Council Working Group on the Ecosystem Approach Framework to Fisheries Management (WG-EAFFM) was established in to report ecosystem developments and the work of WG-ESA, to both the Commission and Scientific Council, to consider the advice of Scientific Council, and to provide recommendations to the Commission.