COMMENT: Citizen science – what’s in it for rec fishers?

A big mulloway tagged, measured and released for the NSW DPI Research Angler Program. Image: Patrick Linehan

In Australia, we place the responsibility of managing and maintaining our fish stocks on state and federal government agencies. They make their management decisions based on data, which has traditionally been sourced from the commercial fishing sector through their mandatory log books and catch data, on-board monitoring, sampling of catches through co-ops, etc. More recently, the recreational sector has been contributing to data collection.

Did you know, for example, the Game Fish Tagging Program in NSW has been collecting tag data since 1973? Tournament statistics and tagging programs are some examples of the ways rec anglers willingly participate, but there are also many long-standing, research programs that anglers have been participating in.

Increasing numbers of grassroots, non-government organisations such as OzFish Unlimited, to name one example, are taking the initiative to address questions related to the management of recreational fisheries. Anglers involvement in recreational fisheries research can range from simply sharing insights and catching fish to be used in studies, to direct participation in experimental design, fundraising, and project coordination and implementation.

Why do we need citizen science in recreational fishing?
Such projects enable our contribution towards the data that is used to manage our fisheries, which is important if we are to trust the data behind the decisions made.

Anglers who’ve participated in the many and various citizen science projects around the country report feeling an increased sense of ownership of fish resources. Their involvement also informs their understanding of the processes and intentions, which I think helps debunk community scepticism and leads to greater understanding and acceptance of management decisions, which is critical for the long-term sustainability of our fish stocks… and therefore to the long term viability of recreational fishing, remembering that the key motivation to going fishing is the promise of actually catching a fish!

One thought-provoking insight I gained whilst researching this article came from a West Australian paper into the “Send Us Your Skeletons” project that tracked the recovery of demersal fish stocks, after the implementation of what some perceived as drastic measures between 2007 and 2010, to rescue the overfished fishery.

One of the measures included the banning of commercial fishing in some zones, posing a problem to scientists tasked with monitoring the effectiveness of the imposed changes. Without commercial fishers mandatory data, they had limited avenues to collect the necessary data from the new “recreational fishing only” zones.

Citizen science programs were the answer and they worked very well.

This got me to thinking… if we refuse to participate in similar programs in our hard-fought-for, recreational-fishing-only zones all around the country, how can we demonstrate that the banishment of commercial fishing from those areas is having the positive impact anticipated? And, if we don’t prove that the fisheries are rebounding, what could happen to the recreational-fishing-only status of those zones in the future?

Most fishers have a natural affinity with the environment, with many of us involved in the conservation and rehabilitation of our waterways. We are a strong contingent of outdoors people who depend on the health of the natural environment for our escape from routine, to foster a sense of true freedom and to provide a healthy pastime to share with family and mates. Why on Earth, then, would we not do everything in our power to help inform the decisions around the maintenance and protection of the resources that sustain it?

Some recreational fishers don’t trust citizen science. What’s the problem?
There are a number of issues that typically agitate some fishers whenever the topic of citizen science comes up in my fishing conversations. The loudest one is that they believe the data may be used to restrict fishing access. There are allegations of such things happening in the past, where fishers’ data of popular fishing spots was used to identify sanctuary zones. I can understand anxiety building in the face of such anecdotes.

Data is available for use, once produced and published. It can be used and, unfortunately, misused. This is true of any data, no matter what the topic.

I’ve done a lot of pondering this sticking point and I’ve come to two realisations: The first is that, in the absence of our own data about our activities and impacts in our waterways, managers must make assumptions based on the data and assertions of others (the commercial sector and others), whose motivations may not include the promotion of the recreational fishing cause. I’d rather have decisions affecting my ability and right to fish to be made with insights from other recreational anglers.

In a recent conversation on this topic, Steve Morgan mentioned that people, who consider the practice of catch, tag and release cruel, even torturous, sometimes challenge him. Steve’s response is simple: it’s the only method of monitoring the resource that doesn’t result in the fish dying. Win!

Steve let me know that this level of participation in data collecting is more accurately known as “community monitoring”, rather than citizen science, because the data is being collected for “whenever it’s needed”, rather than as part of a specific research plan. Community monitoring data is used for surveying fish stock size, movements and health.

Such a bank of data helps with my second realization, that the best way to stop other interest groups from trying to lock rec anglers out of fishing spots is to be able to debunk their data. We can only do this if we have our own!

If we have data to counteract the arguments of those who insist we are destructive, and if we have projects that are of value to the community at large, we reduce the threat of losing our permission to fish. It’s a simple but powerful strategy, and citizen science is the tool.

There is the potential for great power in collaborative research between anglers and recreational fisheries scientists, but only if a mutual understanding of each other’s boundaries is established early and maintained throughout the entire research process, and only if transparency of findings and results exists, making data easy to find.

This is the other common concern that comes up: People simply don’t understand how the data collected relates to them. Resource managers really need to focus on fixing this sticking point. More effort needs to be invested into transparency of the data and promotion of the good work that is done with it, not only to rec anglers, but also to the broader community.

Being involved in citizen science programs has the potential to improve relationships and knowledge flow between members of the public and scientists and help build greater trust and more-widely accepted science and management decisions.

In addition, there are always the feel-good benefits, like making a contribution to sustainability and setting a good example to children, which are noted drivers for participation by fishers in studies to date. What’s not to like?

Want to know more?
Attend the Australian Recreational Fishing Association’s 2019 National Recreational Fishing Conference and discover the people power behind citizen science and how it will shape the future of Australian fishing. Don’t stress if you can’t make it to Hobart, there are virtual tickets available to the live stream of the entire conference.

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