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VT Research Details Economic / Nutritional Impact of Global Recreational Inland Fishing

It is a sight of summer: Along the banks of rivers and streams throughout Virginia, recreational fishers will cast lines into the water, hoping that a fish will take the bait. In urban towns and cities such as Roanoke or Charlottesville, the same lines dangle from bridges or freshwater wharfs.

All of these activities are currently categorized as “recreational fishing,” but for many fishers in the U.S. and around the world, the act of fishing in freshwater is not a leisurely pursuit but a way to provide critical sustenance and nutrition for individuals, families, and communities.

An expansive new paper, co-authored by VA Tech Assistant Professor Elizabeth Nyboer of the College of Natural Resources and Environment and published in the journal Nature Food, reveals the underrecognized extent that inland recreational fisheries provide food and nutrition to people as well as offers insight on their vulnerability to future climate challenges.

Nyboer collaborated on the project with numerous researchers and agencies, including lead author Abigail Lynch of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) National Climate Adaptation Center, Holly Embke of the USGS Midwest Climate Adaptation Center, and Louisa Wood of the University of Portsmouth.

“The most impactful finding of this paper is putting, for the first time, an actual number behind how many recreationally caught freshwater fish are being eaten and quantifying their nutritional and economic contributions on a global scale,” said Nyboer. “Our data shows that recreational fishing contributes 11.3 percent of the overall freshwater fish catch worldwide.”

That percentage – which allows researchers to estimate the total consumption value of global inland recreational fishing is $9.95 billion – challenges the notion that recreationally caught fish are of negligible consequence for nutritional and economic benefit.

“The word ‘recreational’ implies leisure, it means fun,” said Nyboer, who teaches ichthyology in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation. “Because of that description, recreational fisheries are not currently conceptualized or managed as a food resource, and there is very little data on the expanded role they play nutritionally, economically, and from a human science perspective. What we’re doing with this study is challenging that perspective and revealing the complex roles of inland recreational fishing on a global scale.”

Assistant Professor Elizabeth collaborated with a global team of researchers to create species-specific count of global inland fisheries. Illustration courtesy of Lakshita Dey.

From forgotten file cabinets to a global data set

To put a number to the economic and nutritional contributions of global recreational inland fishing, Nyboer utilized previous research that she conducted to develop a species-specific count of inland recreational harvests globally. That research, published in the journal Scientific Data, quantified the catch quotas for 192 species of fish across 81 countries, utilizing a range of data collection methodologies to develop a global map of consumption of recreationally caught freshwater fish.

“To collect that data, we spent hours on the phone, arranging meetings and talking to people all over the world,” said Nyboer, an affiliated faculty member of the Global Change Center. “I talked to 40 or 50 fisheries managers, boat captains, recreational fishing guides, and people in government offices to get information and data on recreational fishing in their countries.”

The data set, as Nyboer recalled, was culled from forgotten places.

“Some of the data we got was just sitting in filing cabinets that had never been digitized,” she said. “We’d get actual photographs of pieces of paper, and they’d tell us it was from a study conducted in, say, 2009. It took our team a couple of years, but we were able to assemble this really unique data set on recreational fish harvest and consumption.”

The data that the research team collected provided a critical foundation of knowledge about inland recreational fishing, demonstrating that it played a large role in the livelihoods of landlocked populations around the world and that it was possible to develop a clear vision of recreational fish harvest and consumption on a global scale.

Assistant Professor Elizabeth Nyboer uses the term “provisional fishing” to describe fishing activities that are done for reasons beyond recreation. Illustration courtesy of Lakshita Dey.

A new framework of sustenance, instead of recreation

In the current paper, Nyboer and other participating researchers were able to develop that earlier data set further. Their efforts resulted in a global vision of inland recreational fishing that reveals the nutritional and economic values of inland fisheries across 56 countries, findings which contribute to the United Nations’ Zero Hunger Sustainable Development Goal to safeguard food security while improving nutrition.

To reflect global concerns over food access, Nyboer prefers and advocates for an alternative term – “provisional fishing” – to describe fishing activities that are done for reasons that extend beyond recreation.

“Just citing one example, urban shore angling is on the rise all over the U.S., and many of those participants are fishing to eat what they catch,” said Nyboer. “There is also often a cultural component. Many are participating because catching and consuming fish is an important part of their cultural or social identity.”

That transition, from thinking about recreational fishing as a purely leisure-based pursuit to thinking about it as multidimensional resource, is one of the shifts in thinking that Nyboer and the research group hopes to foster. A better understanding of how freshwater resources are being utilized can lead to better management of those resources.

“Going forward, one of the central questions is how can countries, governments, and communities better account for individuals who tend to get overlooked when fishing is understood through the lens of ‘recreation,’” Nyboer said. “If all of your management decisions and fishing regulations are geared to improve fishing experiences only for typical sport fishers out on boats looking to catch large fish, you might inadvertently limit or marginalize those fishing for smaller or more diverse catches from the shore.”

Nyboer said the challenges of assessing inland fishing are reflective of a tendency to sideline the experiences of certain groups.

“There is an important social justice angle to all of this research,” she said. “Globally, most of the populations who engage in what we are calling ‘provisioning fisheries’ are those in lower income brackets who tend to be excluded from any kind of decision-making or data collection processes. However, their reliance on this resource, the potential risks and benefits of their engagement, and the non-negligible number of fish being caught and consumed, are all important reasons why they shouldn’t be overlooked.”

Nyboer stresses that putting numbers – some 1.3 million tons of inland fish consumed annually, estimated to be worth approximately $9.95 billion – is a key motivator to getting governments to take notice.

“That’s why this data set is so valuable,” she said. “Often, governing bodies need numbers to allow them to put new policies into action or to better inform the decisions they make.”

Global warming presents new challenges in regions where inland fishing is a food resource to combat nutritional scarcity. Illustration courtesy of Lakshita Dey.

A warmer planet, and new challenges

Rising temperatures present another looming challenge to inland fisheries, particularly in regions where food scarcity will be impacted significantly by climate change. In such regions, there is an urgent need to develop management plans that will protect fish populations while still providing food resources for nations and communities that are already experiencing scarcity.

To understand just how inland fisheries will be impacted by climate change, Nyboer utilized the traits of specific fish species – considering dimensions such as thermal tolerances and seasonal cues for behavior – to estimate the sensitivity and adaptive capacities of fish species around the globe.

From those data, the research group developed county-level vulnerability scores for fish consumed from recreational fisheries, with fish in Iceland, New Zealand, Denmark, and Kenya showing particularly high risks of vulnerability. The group cross-referenced that vulnerability assessment against variables that included the nutritional and economic contributions that inland recreational fishing provides to people.

Nyboer hopes that participating in collaborative research with global partners will be a catalyst for achieving a better understanding of inland recreational fisheries around the world, as well as better policies to mitigate a critical – and critically underrecognized – food resource.

“We’re working on building a global network of researchers,” said Nyboer. “There’s a lot of work happening in dispersed ways, but I get a lot of researchers reaching out to talk about how their work connects to ours, so it feels like a mass movement is building towards understanding recreational fishing in a new and more coherent way.”

Illustration courtesy of Lakshita Dey.

Collaborating universities and agencies for this paper include the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Climate Adaption Science Center and Midwest Climate Adaptation Science Center, Carleton University (Canada), University of Portsmouth (UK), The Nature Conservancy (UK), Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries (Germany), Humboldt University of Berlin (Germany), the National University of San Martin (Argentina), the University of Hull (UK), the Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research (Australia), Charles Sturt University (Australia), the Institute for Evaluations and Social Analyses (Czech Republic), Rhodes University (South Africa), the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity, and George Mason University.

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