Using Local Fisher’s Knowledge in Marine Conservation

By Megan Buras, SRC Intern

To set historical baselines for conservation actions, scientists are using new tactics to involve fishers in marine management. Gaps in long-term scientific data about species abundance and diversity can lead to mismanagement of exploited ecosystems. Scientists from the University of Aberdeen interviewed 53 fishers in three different ports of northern Italy to use Fisher’s Ecological Knowledge to determine historical baselines for conservation in the Northern Adriatic Sea. These interviews collected data from three different groups, novices (fishermen with 1-20 years experience), experienced (21-40 years experience), and veteran (greater than 40 years experience) fishermen (Veneroni and Fernandes 2021). From the interviews, the scientists were able to determine trends in fish abundance and collect information about generational accounts of degradation in both species diversity and the seafloor. 

Figure 1: The study interviewed fishers across a broad span of experience to determine generational comparisons of species abundance and diversity. (Image via Egor Myznik on Unsplash)

In terms of species abundance, the study found a linear decrease in cuttlefish catch rates, a significant decline in sole populations, and no significant change in the catch rates of red mullet over 60 years (Veneroni and Fernandes 2021). The study found significant differences between old and young fishers in the generational accounts of species’ diversity. This is evidence of something called Shifting Baseline Syndrome. In this paper, Shifting Baseline Syndrome refers to an incorrect perception of the health of the ecosystem due to false information about its past conditions. This syndrome can lead to mismanagement of an ecosystem appearing to be healthier than it truly is. In the generational accounts of species’ diversity, the study found that veteran fishers listed a greater number of depleted commercial species than novice fishers. In the generational accounts of seafloor degradation, the study found that many of the veteran fishers believed that trawling equipment was the primary cause for degradation, while the novice fishers cited high fishing effort. 

Figure 2: The study interviewed fishers in 3 different ports in Northern Italy, including Cesenatico, Rimini, and Cattolica. (Source: Veneroni and Fernandes 2021)

Fisher Ecological Knowledge provided knowledge on the historical trends of species abundance and diversity in the Northern Adriatic Sea. This information was found “often exceeding national and international scientific data sets” (Veneroni and Fernandes 2021). While it is evident through generational comparisons that Shifting Baseline Syndrome is at play here, there are other examples of conservation being impeded due to similar circumstances. Dogger Bay in the North Sea is another example of how long-term human exploitation can cause marine management failure set on incorrect baselines (Plumeridge and Roberts 2017). Gaps in knowledge contributing to Shifting Baseline Syndrome are not limited to the field of marine conservation. Even ethnobotanical research has found a loss of generational knowledge to inhibit people’s perceptions of the environment (Hanazaki et al. 2013). All this information indicates that Fisher Ecological Knowledge should be implemented into local conservation efforts. This study utilized “cultural brokers” or individuals from the community to gain social entry and acceptance. This highlights the importance of cultivating relationships with local fishers and community members to better protect and understand local environments.


Works cited

Hanazaki, N., D. F. Herbst, M. S. Marques, and I. Vandebroek. 2013. Evidence of the shifting baseline syndrome in ethnobotanical research. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 9:1-11.

Plumeridge, A. A., and C. M. Roberts. 2017. Conservation targets in marine protected area management suffer from shifting baseline syndrome: A case study on the Dogger Bank. Marine pollution bulletin 116:395-404.

Veneroni, B., and P. G. Fernandes. 2021. Fishers’ knowledge detects ecological decay in the Mediterranean Sea. Ambio:1-13.