Guardians of the oceans: how citizen science and recreational fishing contribute to marine conservation

Collaboration between ordinary citizens and scientists facilitates the work of researchers, enriches the recreational fishing sector and helps to raise awareness of the importance of caring for marine ecosystems. Numerous citizen science projects have been set up around the world in recent years, several of them in harbour environments.

Posted on 01.25.2024
Projects that involve citizens generate new knowledge or help to understand different aspects of our environment. (FP)

Working together to understand our oceans

The habits of a multitude of species that live under the surface of the sea remain a great mystery to science. A good example is the bluefin tuna, a fish that returns to the waters where it was born - in the Mediterranean Sea or in the Gulf of Mexico, depending on the population - when it begins its reproductive stage.

Although knowledge is advancing, little is known about these migrations. To gather information to answer some of the unknowns, in April 2023 Scientific Angler organised a workshop in which recreational fishermen collaborated with scientists from the Institut Français de Recherche pour l'Exploitation de la Mer (Ifremer, a French ocean science institute).

The teams set off from Marina Vela in the port of Barcelona to catch bluefin tuna, tag them with electronic devices and then release them again. This day was followed by two more in the Mediterranean Sea, and a total of 35 fish were tagged. In the coming years, the devices will provide valuable information to learn more about the habits of this species, the state of its population and the health of the seas.

This conference is an example of what citizen science is all about. A type of science based on projects that actively involve citizens in tasks that generate new knowledge or help to understand different aspects of our environment. As explained by the European Citizen Science Association (ECSA), these people can act as contributors, collaborators or leaders of the projects, thus taking a relevant role in the research.

Tagging will provide valuable information to learn more about the habits of bluefin tuna (Scientific Angler).

A platform at the service of science

The collaboration between Ifremer scientists and recreational fishermen in Mediterranean waters has been made possible thanks to the Scientific Angler Tagging Tour, a platform created by Scientific Angler to organise tagging days.

"The platform's rationale is to act as a hinge between scientists and fishermen. It allows us to put them in contact with each other and also to organise tagging days so that the tagging is done in a correct and coordinated way, taking into account all the implications," explains Fede Valls, co-founder of Scientific Angler Tagging Tour.

"The platform facilitates citizen science, which is of great value in three ways: firstly, it allows scientists to reach further thanks to the help of collaborators who are enthusiastic about the work they do. Secondly, fishermen and any other contributors gain because they learn. And thirdly, synergies are established between each other, which allows them to go much further. This is very important," says Valls.

In the bluefin tuna tagging project in the Mediterranean, recreational fishermen are in charge of catching the tuna specified by the scientists. Once they have the fish, the scientists sample them, implant a pop-up electronic tag and then release the fish.

These tags record temperature, light and depth data and are programmed to be released in about a year. Once they surface, they broadcast some of the recorded information to the Argos satellite system. Later, when scientists retrieve the devices, they can access the full data.

"With this data, scientists can see not only the places where the fish have passed, but also the depth, water temperature and other parameters that they then relate to other information to learn more and more about these animals," says Valls.

"Some people ask us what each tag is for. We always reply that each tag serves to fill a knowledge gap. What the information is used for depends a lot on the scientist's objective and what he or she relates the data to. When you consider that not only tuna are tagged, but also sharks, cetaceans and other fish species, it's easy to imagine that there is no limit to what you can learn," says the co-founder of the Scientific Angler Tagging Tour.


Tagging and remote data acquisition by POP-UP electronic tags (basic operation)

Electronic tags make it possible to obtain data without the need to recapture the tagged animal (Scientific Angler).

Citizen science around ports

Citizen science can be used to gather knowledge and information on a multitude of issues, including those that challenge the oceans: plastic pollution, rising water temperatures, the presence of invasive species or the decline of certain species populations, for example.

As these projects involve the public, most of them are carried out on the coast. And in this context, ports are gaining importance as links between land and sea: in recent years, different citizen science projects have taken shape around ports.

In Sydney (Australia), for example, the Wild Sydney Harbour initiative invites people to report sightings of wild animals (such as penguins, sharks, dolphins or whales) around the harbour via social networks or forms available on the project website. Citizen collaboration allows us to know where these animals are and also how they are affected by interactions with people and boats in a space as busy as Sydney Harbour.

Fishermen and other collaborators learn and enable scientists to move forward (FP).

On the other side of the world, the port of Falmouth (UK) collaborates with the international society SeaKeepers to encourage cooperation between recreational boat owners, scientists and environmental researchers to gather information on the state of the water or the seabed. This allows different research groups to understand the implications of climate change or pollution in the sea, among other things.

In these cases (and in the many others that complete the list), these research projects also seek to disseminate, educate and raise awareness, as well as to involve the population in all aspects related to marine life. Scientific Angler tagging days, for example, are always accompanied by lectures, outreach events or plastic collection or monitoring activities.

"A very curious thing happens: people don't associate the sea with nature and wildlife. It seems that wildlife is in the jungles and nature is in the bush," says Valls. "But the sea is nature. The sea is wildlife. And often where people are closest to wildlife is in the sea. We also try to raise awareness about all this," says the co-founder of Scientific Angler Tagging Tour.