For as long as I can remember, I have thought that fish are the most fascinating creatures in the world which is why I am dedicating my life to fisheries conservation. As a student at the University of Georgia, I told my peers that I studied fisheries, but it is more accurate to say that I studied the biology and ecology of fishes.
Fisheries are complex socioecological systems consisting of two components, the fish and their ecosystems, and the fishermen, the socioeconomic systems in which they operate and the management frameworks that influence their fishing. Despite the diversity of research topics within fisheries science, fish biology and ecology seems to be the overwhelming focus of many students when pursuing careers in the field. Similarly, the term “fisheries conservation” is used to describe a limited subset of the field, the conservation of fish. Fish conservation is an important part of fisheries conservation, but the conservation of fishing communities is just as important.
Coming out of school, I knew a lot about fish, yet I did not feel prepared to make the kind of impact on the world that I wished to have. This significant gap in my understanding of the conservation process led me to successfully apply for the Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship. I was placed in the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Atlantic Highly Migratory Species (HMS) Management Division which is responsible for the domestic management of commercially and ecologically valuable species like tunas, sharks, and billfishes in the waters off the US Atlantic and Gulf coasts. In this position, I have learned how policies are implemented to ensure the conservation of US fisheries. I have seen how scientific information, produced by both NMFS and other researchers, informs decisions made by the agency
As a graduate student, I studied freshwater fishes and recreational fisheries. Transitioning to work with marine fishes and commercial fisheries, paired with learning new technical writing conventions, moving to an unfamiliar part of the country, and subsequently working from home because of a pandemic have all made for a challenging but enlightening experience. Despite the changes we have experienced, the HMS division has been supportive through it all. On a daily basis, I’m impressed by the dedication of my coworkers to their jobs. Everyone on the team has continued to work (remotely) without missing a beat. Additionally, the Sea Grant employees in charge of administering the fellowship have continued to work tirelessly to ensure that we have options for professional development as part of our fellowship experiences. I think both groups, and NOAA as a whole, should be applauded for their efforts during these unique times.
While I have been getting along fine given these circumstances, reports suggest that HMS permitted fishermen may not be faring as well. In March, I assisted with division calls to these fishermen to evaluate the economic impacts of the pandemic and associated restrictions of public gatherings and travel on our permit holders. Seafood, particularly species like tuna and swordfish, are sold primarily in restaurants. With the doors of most eateries shuttered, many HMS fishermen had no place to sell their catch. Recreational charter fishing has also suffered because for-hire trips cater to tourists – many of whom have stayed home this year because of travel restrictions and quarantines. As a result, a lot of our fishermen have not been on the water, and some of our fisheries may not meet their quotas as a result.
From a fish conservationist’s point of view, this might not seem problematic. Fewer fish harvested means more fish in the sea. However, from the point of view of a fisheries conservationist, this is not good news. Seafood is an important source of nutrition, holds substantial cultural value and can be sustained with proper management. In order to maintain sustainable fisheries, it is not only necessary to ensure that fish are not overharvested, but it is also necessary to maintain a fleet of fishermen to serve as seafood producers and stewards of the resources. While this year has been an anomaly, there have been some concerning trends in a few HMS fisheries that have recently come to light. Some of our fleets are aging with the next generation conspicuously absent. Others have shown serious declines in participation and quota use over the past decade. Fortunately, the HMS division is working to identify ways to revitalize these fisheries and maximize sustainable quota usage going forward.
As a person who was trained to consider fisheries from an ecological perspective, I am grateful to be learning first-hand about the diversity of information used when making fisheries management decisions. This fellowship has revealed blind spots in my training that I plan to address in the future. It has become apparent to me that fisheries conservation is a multidisciplinary field, much more than I had once considered it to be. While an understanding of fish biology and ecology are essential so is a solid grasp of economics, human decision making, and other social sciences that inform how we understand the socioeconomic elements of fisheries. I would encourage any other students who are studying fisheries to take this to heart. Because of what I have learned through this fellowship, I intend to take a step back during the next stage of my career to learn more about the social side of fisheries science. I hope this will compliment my prior training and will maximize my potential as a fisheries conservationist.