Fishermen as scientists? A new app gathers climate observations from fishermen at sea

Jul 20, 2021

Fishermen have observed changes in ocean ecosystems for years. But, there was no one place to record those observations. This summer, a new mobile app will gather observations from commercial fishermen on the water to bridge the gap between what they see, and what scientists need to know.

Credit Stephanie Maltarich / KDLG

Catie Bursch is a commercial fisherman who set nets each summer on the Ugashik River. Several years ago, she noticed water temperatures in the Ugashik were warming.

 

So, she started to monitor them on her boat. She learned to use the tools while running a citizen science program in Kachemak Bay Research Reserve.

“In 2019, we had a lot of  a lot of dead fish  pre-spawned fish die in the Ugashik rivers because the river was too warm," she said. So that got me going on trying to start monitoring that because it seemed like our river and the Igushik River were more susceptible than other places so I really wanted to get a handle on that.”

She’s continued to document and report her observations. But she says  it’s not always easy to find the right scientists to communicate her data to on pollock, whales or seabirds.

“I take note of a lot of biological changes I see, but then the problem is -- you have to find the right person to report it to, and you end up making six phone calls and just get passed around,” said Bursch.

This summer, a new app called Skipper Science aims to bridge the gap between fishermen and scientists. Fishermen can log climate change observations on the water that will upload to a large database accessible by scientists.

 

Dr. Lauren Divine and Lindsey Bloom collaborated to bring the app to life. 

 

Divine is the director of ecosystems conservation for the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island. Bloom is the campaign strategist for Salmon State, an advocacy organization based in Juneau. 


The Skipper Science app is rooted in Divine’s previous environmental monitoring projects with tribal communities through the Indigenous Sentinels Network. Over several decades, they’ve gone from paper to an online database and finally -- an app.

Divine says skipper science is a well-known field in other Arctic countries where it's common for fishermen to partner with  researchers. 

 

“So we created skipper science to be a tool fishermen in Alaska can use to contribute science observations using local and traditional knowledge and observations to a single location database where all of that could be compiled and used to help advocate for healthy oceans and sustainable futures for local communities,” Divine said.

Bloom’s work with Salmon State helps commercial fishermen strategize how to bring their voices, perspective and stories to decision makers in the policy world.

 

For the past three years, she’s conducted large surveys to learn more about the environmental concerns facing commercial fishermen. 

 

“What we heard a lot about is climate being very much a top concern and how climate is -- and will -- continue to be impacting fisheries, and fisheries management and businesses,” said Bloom.

 

So far, 100 fishermen have downloaded the app and are documenting their observations out on the water. 

For those who didn’t download the app prior to setting sail -- they  can still document observations on paper, and upload them when they return. 

Bloom notes several national organizations such as the National Weather Service and entities within NOAA are excited about skipper science.  

Elizabeth Siddon is a fisheries research biologist with NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center. She leads the southern Bering Sea integrated  ecosystem survey, and connects ecosystem science to management. 

Siddon recently learned about the skipper science app. 

“We’ve had occasional connections with people who might have an observation that eventually filters down and find its way to me," said Siddon. "But this Skipper Science app seems like a centralized resource that seems like a win-win on both ends.”

Siddon believes local observations are invaluable, and she plans to incorporate the observations from skipper science into her ecosystems report later this year. 

Fisherman Catie Bursch continues to make observations this summer. She hasn’t tried the app yet. But she’s excited about its potential.

“You know we think that we’re out here all the time and we see weird stuff, we just think well everybody knows there is pollock floating around that year right? Well, they don't," said Bursch. "I think getting the information back to the people who are actually working on these things is pretty few and far between. So I think people’s information is valuable.”

Divine and Bloom  haven’t started sifting through data yet, but they will have more information about the app’s success in the fall when fishermen return from a summer on the water.

Contact the author at stephanie@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200.