Crossing the River Between Fishers and Fish Science

"We need the next generation of scientists to be at the coalface, communicating good scientific information."

This article was first published in late 2018 (Image Credit: Mallee Catchment Management Authority, CC BY-SA 4.0, Image Cropped)

When a food source provides almost half a planet with protein, you can expect the people who deliver that food source to play an important role in society. Fishing is no exception. Any country that has a marine or freshwater ecosystem in close proximity will have a fishing community, and that community can play a variety of roles, from something as simple as putting food on people’s tables to campaigning heavily to keep your country from joining the EU.

So it makes sense that fishers should have access to good fish science, at every level. If you’re a multi-million-dollar corporation, you need to know how fish stocks will respond to certain catch levels over a sustained period. If you’re a local or specialised fishing community, you need to know how available your catch will be in five years given temperature increases. And if you’re one person on a boat in a river, you might want to know how best to treat an over- or under-sized fish to ensure it survives being released.

It follows, then, that there should be open communication between fish scientists and fishers. At this year’s Australian Society of Fish Biology conference, I asked a variety of delegates a simple question: Is there open communication?

Not enough, according to many locally-based fish biologists. There are some glaringly obvious situations where academics and fishers are on different wavelengths, including invasive species. Whilst most Australian fishers are looking forward to the day carp populations are under control, many don’t realise that brown trout are another invader whose impact on native species can be just as severe. There’s often even backlash against cessation of trout stocking in some areas, despite research showing that stocking doesn’t lead to population increases.

Peter Unmack (University of Canberra) sees the introduction pathways of invasive species as another example where researchers have had communication issues with the public.

“[Academics] 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… 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.’ There’s imbalance on both sides.”

Climate change is another area in which communication can be difficult. When faced with the negative impact of climate change, people will often turn a blind eye, or actively deny its existence, and the fishing community is no exception. Gretta Pecl (University of Tasmania) surveyed commercial fishers in 2009, and 80% thought that climate change was made up by the science community.

However, there are some great examples of successful projects facilitating communication. The Northern Territory’s “Million Dollar Barra” scheme has had success encouraging fishers to participate in community science. The scheme involves the state government releasing fish with marked tags, with fishers who caught a tagged specimen winning prizes, one being up to a million dollars. The scheme has produced some valuable data, says Krystle Keller of Charles Darwin University, and now fishers will report the catch of a tagged fish even outside of the scheme. But whilst community science is great, if the information is only flowing one way, there’s still a gap in the communication, as Krystle explains.

“[T]here’s still an issue with communicating our research and explaining the real importance of collecting that data and those tags. 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.”

Although the Barra scheme is a great way of engaging the public, it is run by the government, and hence doesn’t directly connect academics with the people most affected by their science. Australia has a vast web of intermediary organisations, be it CSIRO or state fishing departments, that often form a bridge between the fish science and fisher communities. And whilst having that medium might be helpful, John Morrongiello (University of Melbourne) explains why direct contact between fish scientists and fishers is a must.

“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]cademia can take a broader brush, or a higher-level view than other organisations, 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 why isn’t there more contact between the two parties? One reason that’s obvious to anyone in academia is that we’re often guilty of focusing too much on publishing—not in fishing magazines that can be easily accessed by a wider audience, but in dense, jargon-heavy scientific articles that would weigh down any everyday reader. There’s a real pressure on many of us to maintain a high level of ‘scientific output’, and it can make outreach seem like a heavy burden.

This isn’t helped by the fact that, even when communication is strong, it requires long-term commitment, as Gretta puts it.

“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.”

Gretta’s initiative does show, however, that open and reliable communication can work. Both Gretta and Eva Plaganyi(CSIRO) have had success when they’ve reached out to members of the fishing industry, traditional land owners and local fishers. Their key has been to sit down in a room and provide a forum for open communication, instead of simply giving a lecture.

TS summit talk

Both Eva Plaganyi (pictured) and Gretta Pecl have had success communicating with stakeholders. The key has been to provide an open forum, and trigger discussions as opposed to giving lectures (Image Credit: CSIRO, CC BY-SA 4.0)

One example was the initiative Gretta took after the aforementioned survey on climate change. She invited local fishers to an open discussion and asked them what sort of changes in the surrounding biota they had individually noted. The changes that they’d seen were all very indicative of climate change trends, which made the link more obvious and increased trust between the parties:

“It was great, watching them gel everything together. One of them would note a change, and then the others would concur. You could see this emerging sense in the room that maybe they weren’t individually noting weird one-off occurrences—they were seeing trends.”

Eva Plaganyi has been able to work social effects, gauged from time spent interacting directly with fishing communities, into her scientific models. The approach has two advantages: her models are more informed, and seeing their advice being actively taken on board generated trust from the communities she was interacting with.

Yet cases like this, where there is emphasis and value placed on time spent with the public, are relatively rare. Fish researchers and academics need to find more ways to communicate their research. Fishing magazines, Facebook groups and public forums are just a few of the ways that we need to be interfacing directly with the fishing community, be it to a local fishing society or a large corporation. But ultimately, as with almost all disciplines, more value and time within academia needs to be allocated to ensuring that researchers find the idea of communicating their research a bonus and not a burden.

Full responses from all academics mentioned above will be published on Monday. Separate interviews with Peter, Eva and Gretta can be found at the links below.




Sam Perrin is a freshwater ecologist currently completing his PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology who is defending his thesis next Friday and maintaining a tenuous grip on sanity (though he still has a firm grip on invasive semantics). You can read more about his research and the rest of the Ecology for the Masses writers here, see more of his work at Ecology for the Masses here, or follow him on Twitter here.

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