Fishers and Fish Science: The Australian Fish Scientist Perspective

Fishing is an important part of Australian society. So is communication between fish scientists and fishers strong enough?

Fishing is an important part of Australian society. So is communication between fish scientists and fishers strong enough? (Image Credit: State Library of Queensland, Image Cropped)

Last Thursday, I posted an article on the need for more contact communication the fish scientist community and the fishing community, which you can find here. It gives a breakdown of why better communication between the two groups is mutually beneficial, and how it could be improved. The piece was written after talks with a number of prominent Australian fish biologists, whose thoughts I’ve shared in more detail below.

The question posed to all delegates was simple: is there enough communication between the fish science community and fishers?

Eva Plaganyi, Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO

Applied Marine Ecology

I think the answer is no, there’s never really enough. As scientists it can be hard to find enough time to engage with the general public. We love what we do and we’re excited about our science, but our time is often restricted by pressure to publish in scientific journals. Given all the communication and outreach I do, I’ve sometimes had to ask myself, why am I doing this? It can be exhausting, I’ve been treated rudely by some stakeholders, and I’ve got less time to do research or write papers, because so much time has been taken up with technical reports and outreach. So that’s one of the obstacles, the pressure on our science careers. There are not many employers who are likely to reward you or recognise that you’ve spent a lot of time engaging with stakeholders.

I work at CSIRO though, where there is a strong focus on our science having real impact. So there’s less emphasis on constant publishing and more on good engagement. This ensures our science outcomes are well aligned with community research needs. But many young researchers work in a University environment, and it may count against them if they spend too much time on outreach instead of publishing. It’s also a hard thing to do – it can take years for a young researcher to earn the credibility needed to get buy-in from listeners.

Also, not all scientists are extroverts. In my case, being an extrovert helps. I know some of my more introverted colleagues find it a lot harder. In addition, in Australia and many other places at the moment, there’s an erosion of support for science-based decision making. For example, where decisions are driven purely by political agendas, or equal weight is given to all opinions, even when one opinion comes from someone who has objectively studied the topic for many years. Maybe it’s like that because we haven’t communicated enough. Everybody else is out there using social media and scientists are likely not adding sufficiently to it. It’s a complex question, but no, we’re probably not doing enough.

Gretta Pecl, Director of the Centre for Marine Socioecology, University of Tasmania

Marine Climate Change Ecology & Socioecology

I think on the whole, the Australian research community does a pretty good job of engaging with commercial and recreational fishers. I’ve been to so many different workshops and meetings, where we’ll try and start off the meetings and workshops by asking members of the local fishing community to contribute what they know. We are going more for two way communication and less for a lecture. It works well, but the problem is that we’d get a two year project, and start engaging and communicating, and then you’ll have a separate project and leave for a while, and when you come back, there’s been a gap, some of that rapport has been lost. We need to be consistent, and that’s really hard. Ideally we would still be having some kind of relationship or exchange in between projects so we’re not seen as fly in, fly out.

I think there is a fair bit of trust, but that can flip on a dial. I worked with the squid fishing industry in Tasmania for probably 5 years during my PhD. I was at the coalface, and I built fantastic relationships. There was one guy who even lent me his boat. I was a 28-year old and told him that I needed more samples but all the university boats were being used, and he offered his! But 5 years later I was presenting at a meeting, and even though my information was going to be used to loosen fishing restrictions, there had been rumours going around that the meeting was about tightening restrictions. But the message had been skewed, and even though it was all research that they had previously seen and agreed with, they completely misinterpreted the point of the meeting. So they suddenly weren’t happy with the management, and it all blew up. I was just there to present on migration and population structure, and management were planning on reducing restrictions, but because of how the meeting was framed, it all fell apart. There was screaming and yelling and people telling me I didn’t know what I was talking about. So in general I think communication and engagement is pretty good, but we need to be clear and consistent, and recognise that it can flip really quickly.

Krystle Keller, Research Fellow, Charles Darwin University

Applied Aquatic Ecology

Up in Northern Australia, the scientific community there have a lot to do with fisheries. Recreational fishing is really big up there, Barramundi and offshore fishing particularly. My work is currently based in tropical rivers, some of it’s in the Daly River, which is a really iconic spot for fishing. And a lot of the main reasons we do the work we do is because it feeds into the recreational fishing industry. So although I don’t personally interact with recreational fishers, we talk to them through our colleagues at Northern Territory (NT) fisheries. Fishers at the moment are actually helping to collect information on fishing effort, and  gathering an idea of what species have been targeted and how the stocks are doing.

The best example is the “Million dollar fish“. It’s a really big tourism plug. NT fisheries put out tags on Barramundi, but they don’t announce where they’re releasing these fish. The anglers can go out and catch them, and with the chance to win an award if you catch a tagged fish, with one of them being a million dollars. And to do that they have to register online. When you catch a fish you have to be a registered fishermen, which is completely free, anyone can do it, and it means they’re communicating their information with fisheries. So now, even if it’s outside of that fishing season, some people may catch a tagged fish and they’ll call up and say that they’ve caught a tag and provide its details, which is very helpful.

But there’s still an issue with communicating our research out to them and explaining the real importance of collecting that data and those tags. A lot of people that come up are tourists. They want to go fishing, but they may not know about the research and the importance of it. So the issue is getting the information out there to them.  This can be tricky especially as there are so many different channels for communicating our research (e.g. social media, websites, newspaper articles, etc) and reaching the target audience.

John Morrongiello, School of BioSciences, University of Melbourne

Evolutionary Ecology

Not between academics and fishers. It’s a hard one, because in Australia we have these intermediary organisations, which are government funded research institutes, state-based fisheries agencies. And they fill a lot of that active engagament role. That’s great in one sense, but I think that academia needs to be more engaged directly with the industry, because the way we tackle questions and the scope of what we’re interested in is different. A government funded agency might have a very strong deliverable, whether that’s improving the value of a fishery, or ensuring that catches are sustainable. Academia can take a broader brush, or a higher-level view, asking different questions. Perhaps we’re looking at larger-scale impacts of fisheries, larger scale opportunities. We also focus on the biology, which is often lacking in fishery science.

So at the moment academics talk to people at the state government or people at the CSIRO, who then talk to the industry. We need to create that link between industry and academia, so that there’s a constant flow of ideas. That way the fundamental biology and applied science that we do, is directly seen and valued by the industry. We are an independent organisation and research provider and we have a valuable role to play.


It’s hard to convince the public that brown trout stocking doesn’t work, despite well-founded scientific studies (Image Credit: Mike Cline, Creative Commons)

Peter Unmack, Institute for Applied Ecology, University of Canberra

Freshwater Conservation & Evolutionary Biology

There are a few communication issues. You can look at invasive species for starters. The academic side will say that a lot of the invasives are coming from people dumping their aquarium fish. But all the people I know in the aquarium hobby feel like they get maligned, because they’re not the ones releasing the fish, there’s someone else outside that group who’s ignorant about these things and they let their fish go. And they also turn around and say, well we didn’t release carp, trout, redfin or tilapia, that was the scientists and fishing industry who deliberately did that. So there’s imbalance on both sides. There’s some educational stuff on not releasing alien fish, but it can always be a lot stronger, and it’s often done too late. For instance, weather loach came into Australia and got out into the wild. they’re a cold-water fish from Asia, and it’s now illegal to keep or import weather loach into Australia. But they’re already everywhere, so what’s the point? The horse has bolted, and now they’ve banned them. I think a lot of it is just like many things, a lack of people coming together and talking, and too much focus on the differences rather than the similarities.

There’s also a lot of fundamental misunderstanding as to why fish stocks are low. Some people want more fish stocking. But if your habitat is no good, there’s no point stocking fish. And Victorian fisheries have been pretty good about that, because they liaise a lot with angling groups. So they fin-clipped all the trout they released over 5 years, and they’d go back and resample spots and they would catch lots of trout, but rarely ever a fin-clipped trout. The point was, there’s enough natural recruitment that we can’t catch a stock fish. Stocking wasn’t bolstering the population. So with the right sort of science behind these things, you can convince people of these things. But that takes a huge amount of effort and resources. And the problem is most of these things are all underfunded or people are overloaded with their responsibilities and there’s just not the time to do it. And that’s really challenging.

Jarod Lyon, Manager Applied Aquatic Ecology, Arthur Rylah Institute

Applied Aquatic Ecology

Across the board, probably not. We need to be better. Stephen Cooke gave a great keynote presentation this morning about the importance of the connection between the fishing community and the fish science community. Now a lot of the recreational fishing industry doesn’t engage in science or management, they just want to go fishing. So what you can get is that very small proportion of the recreational fishing community who is scientifically engaged setting the agenda on behalf of everyone else. But there’s plenty of rooms for researchers to get their information out to that community at large. I read fishing magazines and I rarely see stories that have been published about fish research, and that’s the way that a lot of fishers get their information. So there’s definitely room for growth. But it’s a fine line. You don’t want to be working for those groups, because a lot of them are in it for personal gain – which is fine. But you want to make sure that they’re getting the right information.

Full interviews with select delegates can be found by clicking the links attached to their names.

One comment

  • Hi science guys,

    We really need to better understand zooplankton dynamics in esturine systems.
    Particularly in light of the poor recruitment of Australian bass, Estuary perch, and Black bream in East Gippsland.
    An important question for you to answer is if our enviromental water reserves can be used in a manner to influence esturine zooplankton communties and improve recruitment outcomes.


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