Equation-free mechanistic ecosystem forecasting using empirical dynamic modeling

Model output for the Ricker, extended Ricker, and multivariate EDM models.
TitleEquation-free mechanistic ecosystem forecasting using empirical dynamic modeling
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2015
AuthorsYe H, Beamish R.J, Glaser S.M, Grant S.CH, Hsieh CH, Richards L.J, Schnute J.T, Sugihara G
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Date Published2015/03
Type of ArticleArticle
ISBN Number0027-8424
Accession NumberWOS:000351914500012
Keywordsabundance; chum salmon; climate; ecosystem forecasting; empirical dynamic modeling; fisheries ecology; fluctuations; georgia; hypothesis; interactions; nonlinear dynamics; ocean; oncorhynchus-nerka; Physical-biological; river sockeye-salmon; time-series

It is well known that current equilibrium-based models fall short as predictive descriptions of natural ecosystems, and particularly of fisheries systems that exhibit nonlinear dynamics. For example, model parameters assumed to be fixed constants may actually vary in time, models may fit well to existing data but lack out-of-sample predictive skill, and key driving variables may be misidentified due to transient (mirage) correlations that are common in nonlinear systems. With these frailties, it is somewhat surprising that static equilibrium models continue to be widely used. Here, we examine empirical dynamic modeling (EDM) as an alternative to imposed model equations and that accommodates both nonequilibrium dynamics and nonlinearity. Using time series from nine stocks of sockeye salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka) from the Fraser River system in British Columbia, Canada, we perform, for the the first time to our knowledge, real-data comparison of contemporary fisheries models with equivalent EDM formulations that explicitly use spawning stock and environmental variables to forecast recruitment. We find that EDM models produce more accurate and precise forecasts, and unlike extensions of the classic Ricker spawner-recruit equation, they show significant improvements when environmental factors are included. Our analysis demonstrates the strategic utility of EDM for incorporating environmental influences into fisheries forecasts and, more generally, for providing insight into how environmental factors can operate in forecast models, thus paving the way for equation-free mechanistic forecasting to be applied in management contexts.


"The conventional parametric approach to modeling relies on hypothesized equations to approximate mechanistic processes. Although there are known limitations in using an assumed set of equations, parametric models remain widely used to test for interactions, make predictions, and guide management decisions. Here, we show that these objectives are better addressed using an alternative equation-free approach, empirical dynamic modeling (EDM). Applied to Fraser River sockeye salmon, EDM models (i) recover the mechanistic relationship between the environment and population biology that fisheries models dismiss as insignificant, (ii) produce significantly better forecasts compared with contemporary fisheries models, and (iii) explicitly link control parameters (spawning abundance) and ecosystem objectives (future recruitment), producing models that are suitable for current management frameworks. "

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