Friday, June 28, 2013

Fish biologists need to fish

Fisheries science holds profound ramifications for the future of fish in our lakes, rivers, estuaries and oceans. In Florida where 31% of people consider themselves anglers, it is no wonder why everyone has an opinion on how and why fish should be managed. Most anglers agree that conservation of fish populations is a necessity; the questions arise in the best way to do that (e.g. regulations) and how scientists arrive at management decisions. Questions turn to distrust and doubt when the communication gap between scientists and the public is not breached. 

Fisheries science is prone to criticism. First, it is not an exact science. Models provide projections and population estimates. Second, models aren’t well understood by the public (and I dare say many scientists) due to their complexity. Models often change or are replaced over time as the science evolves and adapts to include new statistical theory and methodology. Change, in all aspects of life, can be difficult to accept. Opaque reasons for change cause anglers to hold fast to old-fashioned but comfortable management and data collection methods. For example, Catch Per Unit Effort (CPUE) is a straightforward, traditional measurement of abundance and is easily understood by scientists and the public. However multiple studies on collapsing stocks have shown that CPUE may remain high as the population declines (e.g. Erisman et al. 2011), prompting managers to rely on additional benchmarks for stock health. The Fishing Rights Association (FRA) lists this shift as an issue of concern- specifically that stock assessment models are ignoring standard benchmarks including CPUE. The FRA has gone so far as to hire their own scientists to prove federal regulators wrong. The CPUE conflict exemplifies the difficulty of remaining cutting edge in fisheries science yet retaining the confidence of the public.

Bad science has also fueled the flame of doubt among the public. Misinterpretation of data and unsubstantiated grandiose conclusions have resulted in many publications crying population collapse- the equivalent of shouting fire in a crowded room. If there is a fire, by all means shout fire! But overuse and misuse has earned scientists a reputation for crying wolf. An article in Kayak Fishing Magazine (Feb 2013) described a proposal by the Wild Fish Conservancy (WFC) in Washington for closures on lingcod, citing a study that found protected rockfish were caught 35:1 to targeted lingcod. Anglers cited several flaws in the study including data collection. The WFC study was designed (i.e. sampling locations and gear type) to catch rockfish and didn’t include any catch data from anglers. Luckily the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife intervened with information from a separate long-term dataset that showed the catch projections from WFC were overestimated by twenty fold. The proposal was not passed. The sad part? The article ended with, “While they may have good intentions, these organizations will use whatever ‘Best Available Science’ they can in order to further their claims.” Even though logical thinking prevailed, the process left a bitter taste with anglers.

What can we do to earn back our ‘unbiased scientific badge’ from the public? Go fish! The Marine Resource Education Program (MREP) states that the need for scientists to be connected to the fishing community is equally important as the need for anglers to understand science and management procedures. What better way to connect than to actually go fishing and learn from de facto naturalists! Anglers are more likely than the general public to read articles about environmental change in aquatic habitats and better understand how those changes influence management (Waterton, 2003, Law, 2008).  With the advent of blogs, texting, tweeting, video posting and online access to meetings and reports, anglers are more educated on fishery issues than before. Shouldn’t scientists contribute equal effort in educating themselves about fishing and the needs of the fishing community?  For scientists, getting out in the field, bending a rod and having a few good stories to tell paves the way for a friendly encounter with anglers on the water. A simple ‘Are you catching anything? I had pretty good luck over by the south jetty last night…’ goes a long way in building (and re-building) trust. From personal experience, one of the most powerful and view-changing statements you can make is that you want them to catch fish.

In summation, I advocate that we (the biologists) have an obligation to the public to do our jobs to the best of our abilities. The public trusts us with their future fishery-based income and recreational opportunities; in return we should critically evaluate how we collect data (i.e. is it truly reflective of the population), how we interpret data (i.e. don’t cry wolf) and consciously work to become more familiar with the local fishing community. Go fish!

Erisman BE, Allen LG, Claisse JT, Pondells DJ, Miller EF, Murray JH (2011) The illusion of plenty: hyperstability masks collapses in two recreational fisheries that target fish spawning aggregations. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 68: 1705-1716
Law J (2008) On sociology and STS. The Sociological review 56:623-649.

Waterton C (2003) Performing the classification of nature. In Nature performed: environment, culture and performance. Blackwell, Oxford. Pp. 111-129


  1. Excellent article, Joy. I think this is something we biologists think of daily, but you've really chosen great words to reveal this often only subtle thought in the scientist who wishes to make a difference.

    I, too, have found the simple "catching anything?" a great way to spark a conversation about not just fish and fishing, but about life in general...unless I'm actively trespassing at the time. Then it doesn't go over as well.

    Nice post.

    Matt Badolato AFS FL

  2. Nice blog, thanks for sharing the information. I will come to look for update. Keep up the good work..

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