Fishos in the know: the value of fishers’ knowledge in making fisheries better
When I first mentioned to an angler mate of mine that I was studying fisheries, he chuckled, waggled his finger accusingly, and exclaimed, “you’re the ones trying to make sure we don’t catch any fish!”
The remark, while light-hearted, reflected a sentiment common to both recreational and commercial fishers: that fisheries regulations are too tough, or missing the mark. While there are numerous reasons for the tension between fishers and regulators, a big one is that fishers feel they are not taken seriously in the decision-making process.
To be effective, fisheries management needs to be based on solid fisheries science. But gathering enough data on fished stocks and ecosystems can be time-consuming, expensive, and often, it’s simply not possible - especially in remote or impoverished areas. Plus, it is somewhat arrogant to believe that we, as fisheries scientists or managers (who, sadly, spend more time in a distant office than out on the water), would know the ins-and-outs of an ecosystem better than those who fish it regularly. Indigenous communities which have fished an area for generations, commercial fishers relying on the fishery for their livelihoods, and even recreational fishers taking every chance they can get to wet a line, can all possess valuable knowledge of their local ecosystem.
This knowledge is known as local ecological knowledge (LEK), and can include details of the biology and abundance of economically or socially important species, and how they are influenced by daily, seasonal and interannual changes in the environment. Fishers build this knowledge over years (even decades, or generations) on the water, learning where and when the fish will bite, and picking up long-term patterns in the ecosystem. This knowledge can also provide the 'long view' about what fish and fishing was like before fisheries monitoring began, allowing scientists to 'hind-cast' what things used to be like, such as what shark populations used to be like around Sicily in the 1940s before monitoring began (Colloca et al. 2020 - you can read the full paper HERE).
This way of building knowledge, while still based on observation and adaptation, is much less systematic than the western scientific method, and as a result, LEK is often dismissed by fisheries scientists as ‘anecdotal’. This knowledge also isn’t checked and verified in the same way as formal western science (e.g. replicable studies, peer review), and so fisheries managers might be hesitant to include LEK in their decision-making process.
But is this distrust fair? A study conducted by Zukowski and colleagues from 2011 suggests that the knowledge of recreational fishers could be just as accurate as scientists’. The team wanted to compare information from recreational fishers and scientific surveys on the size and sex ratios of Murray crayfish in south-eastern Australia. They gathered data from interviews with recreational fishers, and from logbooks and ecological field surveys. Remarkably, they found no significant difference between the estimates based on traditional scientific methods, and those based on the LEK of local fishers.
So, we know LEK can provide reliable information about fished ecosystems, but just how valuable is this information for fisheries scientists and managers? The rescue of Kiribati’s bonefish fishery highlights the difference that considering LEK can make when supporting fish stocks and those who depend on them. During the 1980s, causeways built to connect islands blocked key spawning migration routes between the atoll’s lagoon and the open ocean. Gillnets were frequently set across the remaining routes, catching the bonefish as they migrated to spawn. The population was declining as a result, and although the problem was clear to the older fishermen around the atoll, assessments by the Fisheries Department, based on questionnaires given out to younger fishers, had not uncovered the problem. A group of researchers conducted unstructured interviews with well-respected, older fishermen from islands all around the atoll, and discovered that just one spawning run remained. This collaboration between fishers and scientists revealed the dire condition of this crucial food resource, and allowed the villagers to organise a grass-roots conservation effort. This effort was successful, and almost a decade later bonefish catches were on the rise (Johannes et al., 2000).
These two stories demonstrate the potential benefits of incorporating LEK into sustainable fisheries management, but there are a few things to keep in mind as we do. Firstly, fishers’ LEK can be fallible and subject to biases. Just like scientific knowledge, we should aim to verify information wherever possible, through corroboration and triangulation with other individuals or supporting ecological and biological information. But we should also note that when LEK and scientific knowledge are saying different things, this doesn’t necessarily mean one is wrong. Instead, this could be a product of how the data was collected, for example over different spatial or temporal scales, or using different fishing gears.
A second thing to bear in mind is the ethics about the recording, sharing and application of LEK by fisheries scientists and managers, may impact the fishers. While scientists strive to have their work published for the world to see, fishers have plenty of reasons to keep such knowledge to themselves. Commercial fishers may be afraid of competitors finding out about their secret spots, or of managers shutting down their most profitable fishing grounds. Indigenous fishers may also have cultural limitations on who has the rights to access knowledge, for example outsiders may be restricted, while in many Indigenous Australian cultures certain knowledge may be designated as “men’s business” and “women’s business” and must not be shared across gender groups. LEK is traditionally shared orally among exclusive groups, but once it’s written down and shared with managers or the public, fishers no longer have control of it. As fisheries researchers, we need to be mindful not to compromise fishers and their communities when handling LEK. It’s their intellectual property and we need to respect it as such (Chin et al. 2019).
Fishers’ LEK has huge potential to complement formal scientific knowledge, filling gaps and providing new perspectives and information on fished ecosystems. By collaborating with fishers to incorporate both forms of knowledge into fisheries management, we can improve relationships between stakeholders while working towards the shared goal of ensuring there are still fish out there for our grandkids to catch.
Chin, A., Baje, L., Donaldson, T., Gerhardt, K., Jabado, R.W., Kyne, P.M., Mana, R., Mescam, G., Mourier, J., Planes, S., and Wen, C. (2019) The scientist abroad: Maximising research impact and effectiveness when working as a visiting scientist. Biological Conservation 238, 108231.
Colloca, F., Carrozzi, V., Simonetti, A., and Di Lorenzo, M. (2020) Using Local Ecological Knowledge of Fishers to Reconstruct Abundance Trends of Elasmobranch Populations in the Strait of Sicily. Frontiers in Marine Science 7(508).
Johannes, R.E., Freeman, M.M.R., Hamilton, R.J. (2000). Ignore fishers’ knowledge and miss the boat. Fish and Fisheries, 1: 257–271.
Zukowski, S., Curtis, A., Watts, R.J. (2011). Using fisher local ecological knowledge to improve management: The Murray crayfish in Australia. Fisheries Research, 110: 120-127. doi:10.1016/j.fishres.2011.03.020.