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Thursday, 9 November 2017

In plain and simple language


How do fishermen understand the ecosystem?

From across the pond comes yet another endorsement of 'fishers knowledge', this time from the Maine Centre for Coastal Fisheries. None of what they say is new of course but what is new is that the desire and means to record and make available fishers' information is now increasingly being sought, encouraged and indeed needed. One thing that does stick out like a sore thumb of course is the language used by those from scientific in describing this knowledge - and that is not the day-to-day language used by fishermen of course - far from it. Even between relatively small geographical areas fishermen use very different terms and expressions to describe exactly the same fish, gear or action. In Newlyn for example a trawl or net is 'shot' meaning to put in the water - in St Ives they would use the word 'shut'. 

This, of course, is precisely the reason science uses such specific terms because phrases like 'spatial adaptation' are understood by scientists the world over - the terms are universal and designed to share and spread (facilitate and disseminate) information. Importantly, scientists also need to remember that fishermen do not have knowledge of this coded language so whenever they address or make presentations directly to fishermen as the example below illustrates - they need to be mindful of using appropriate language!


This was a recent advert put out to the fishing community at large - a call for innovative ideas - but several marine students at university I asked could not explain what the term 'spatial adaptations' meant - so how was Bert the fishermen supposed to fully understand and respond to this call for his innovative ideas?

How do fishermen understand the ecosystem?

At Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries (MCCF), we work to connect the knowledge of fishermen with the findings of science and the world of policymakers. As part of an ongoing project exploring the knowledge held by fishermen about the marine ecosystem, we aim to understand how access rights shape fishermen’s knowledge, and thereby the kinds of information they can contribute to fisheries science and management.

Fishermen are careful observers, developing detailed and fine-scale knowledge about the marine environment – not surprising given the fact that they are interacting with that environment on a regular basis. To take stock of this knowledge base, MCCF’s Research Fellow Emily Farr and Cooperative Research Scientist Josh Stoll have interviewed 17 fishermen in 12 harbors throughout Hancock and Washington counties. The interviews have focused on their fishing experience, interactions between species and their habitat, food web relationships, and environmental change.

Fishermen are keen observers of ecosystem dynamics, processes, and relationships

In these interviews, fishermen describe a complex and multi-scalar set of observations about ecosystem structure and change. A few examples of the dynamics, processes, and relationships described are:

  • Habitat: The composition of the seafloor — mud, sand, gravel, rock — is an important determinant of the spatial distribution of species in the ecosystem. Many fishermen describe how life gathers at the so-called “edges” of the seafloor, where one bottom type transitions into another. Other factors important for habitat include water depth and food availability.
  • Oceanographic Factors: Water temperature is commonly described as one of the most important factors in determining the abundance and spatial distribution of various species, and their patterns of behavior, including migration and reproduction.
  • Food Web Relationships: Fishermen frequently say if you find the feed, you find the fish. Feeding behavior is often a primary driver of species movement, whereby predators follow their prey. Predator-prey relationships also play an important role in the relative abundance of various species.
  • Environmental Change: Fishermen describe changing water temperatures and seasonal patterns, which often drive changes in species abundance, distribution, and behavior. Changes in fishing pressure and the nature of fishing activities also contribute to these changes in species abundance.
  • Fishermen’s knowledge is rich and variable


The patterns emerging from an early set of interviews provide important insights into both the richness and variability of knowledge held by commercial fishermen.

First, fishermen who hold or have held licenses for multiple fisheries seem to develop a more holistic understanding of the marine environment and its dynamics. MCCF has long advocated for diversification in catch and the shoreside economy. This diversification enables fishermen to develop a keener understanding of the ecosystem through regular interactions with multiple components of that ecosystem.

Second, the collective body of fishermen’s knowledge is more complex and complete than the knowledge of any single individual. Fishermen operate in different places and at varying scales, just as ecological processes occur at varying scales. A clam digger in the intertidal zone will see a finer and more sessile set of interactions than a fisherman targeting a mobile fish like tuna. This implies a requirement for collaboration and the synthesis of different perspectives — individuals in different fisheries and geographic contexts, scientists, managers, policymakers — in order to facilitate a better understanding of the complex and multi-scalar processes and interactions that make up the marine ecosystem.

Maine is somewhat unique in its embrace of co-management of fisheries resources, where governance is shared between the fishing industry and state agencies. This makes the dynamics of fishermen’s knowledge particularly important, as it has significant implications for the kinds of information they are able to contribute to management. This ongoing project supports MCCF’s belief that fisheries decision-making would benefit from the experience and expertise of diversified fishermen, and many of them.

Findings: Drivers of species abundance and distribution across space, as described by three fishermen who collectively have participated in lobster, groundfish, scallop, shrimp, halibut, clam, mussel, seaweed, urchin, and sea cucumber fisheries. The width of the arrow indicates the number of fishermen who described each relationship.

Full story courtesy of Coastal Fisheries Org.