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Fisheries Management Topics: Human Dimensions of Fisheries

Updated: Jun 23, 2021

Understanding the math and science behind fisheries management is one hell of a lot easier than trying to understand people. Attempting to understand anglers is what is generally called "Human Dimensions" of fisheries, as if to separate it from all the rest of fisheries management - the "science-y" stuff. Human Dimensions is the class that pretty much anyone that studies fisheries management and ecology takes that is different from all the other classes.

Sunset over the impoundment
One of my favorite places - a peaceful sunset at my favorite campsite in Michigan's Upper Penninsula.

In human dimensions research, satisfaction is one of the key measure of, well, how satisfied anglers are with their experience. Birdsong et al. (2021) defined satisfaction as "the reward that recreational anglers receive from their experiences". On its face, it would seem that what anglers' catch determines their satisfaction but it is not that simple. I mean everyone wants to catch more large fish, that is pretty much universally true, but catch success alone does not mean that an angler is going to be satisfied. Much of our satisfaction is derived from how well - or poorly - our experience matched our expectations. We have all had days where something failed to meet our expectations - the stream was crowded, somebody high-holed you, the stream was muddy due to something happening upstream, etc.

From the Birdsong et al. (2021) analysis of hundreds of published papers revealed that

...catch-related (i.e. catch rate, size of caught fish, fish harvest) and two non-catch-related components (i.e. access to fishing sites and crowding) were most related to angler satisfaction. Other non-catch components (e.g. environmental quality, facilities, perception of relaxation quality) also contributed to angler satisfaction but were of less importance...

They go on to summarize that preventing angler dissatisfaction is an important goal of resource agencies. What tends to lead to dissatisfaction is certainly poor catch quality but it is also crowding and access to fishing sites. For a resource agency, high angler satisfaction means that they are more likely to buy a license again and license sales fund resource agencies and help determine how much money they receive from federal excise taxes. I probably do not need to write this but money is what allows resource agencies to manage fish and wildlife habitats, particularly on publicly accessed lands and waters.

Chicken facility on Timber Coulee.
The new chicken facility on a local stream has lowered my satisfaction. Oh, those stupid, noisy fans...

The old adage, you can please some of the people some of the time but you can't please all of the people all of the time is a truism. In a nutshell, that is the problem with fisheries management. You are NEVER going to please everyone but we can provide a diversity of experiences to give something for everyone. We are all different and fish for different reasons and thus are going to be satisfied by different experiences and outcomes. What satisfies me may be of little interest to someone else. So what we often see is a "something for everybody" approach to fisheries management. The best chance of pleasing most of the people is to provide different experiences and allow anglers to "choose their own adventure".

Think about how you decide where to fish. The calculus may vary from day to day. As I write this, yesterday I chose to fish where I did for a number of reasons. First, since I was only going to fish for a few hours, I wanted to stay relatively close to home. Couple that with what was a really busy Wednesday, so I had fewer options than usual. Lastly, I had written a post about last cast fish that had be a little bit nostalgic. Together, I fished where I did for time, money, lack of crowding, and rather individually personal reasons. Tomorrow I will choose a place to fish for different reasons. And over the course of a season, I will chose to fish both a diversity of different streams and I will generally look to fish the sort of water that I like - riffle-run-pool streams that are relatively small. I rarely give much thought to whether or not I can harvest fish but for many anglers, that is a - maybe THE - primary consideration.

One of my harvests from last year.
How important anglers view harvesting fishes is one of the biggest divisions among anglers.

This leads us to the idea of "angler segmentation" where human dimensions researchers try to put us anglers into categories based on our motivations associated with when, where, how, and why anglers choose to fish. This is where we try to understand angler's motivations for fishing and group them accordingly. Of course, one significant issue is that our motivations often vary from day to day and trip to trip. But in general terms, how central harvest is to an angler's experience and satisfaction is typically the first factor that separates anglers based on their motivations. Among those that are harvest-oriented, harvest is not the only factor that affects their satisfaction but it is typically the first consideration and it helps determine their satisfaction with a particular day. Thus, these analyses are generally multivariate analyses (they consider multiple factors at once) due to the complexity associated with angler motivations.

Another important motivation for anglers is how central fishing is to their lives. In human dimensions this is talked about as angler specialization. I wrote about this concept in the "Average" angler post some time ago and wondered how do you manage resources when people use those resources so differently? For most trout anglers, trout fishing is not very central to their lives (I know, right!). They fish opening weekend and maybe around another three-day weekend or two during the season. Nationally, very few anglers buy a license every year. A shocking small 4% of anglers have bought a license each of the last ten years. For me, not only is fly fishing central to my life, I have rather particular motivations and ways that I prefer to catch fish. For others, it is about going out on opening day then the rest of the year is dedicated to panfish, bass, Walleye, or whatever bites. Maybe opening day is the only fishing they do all year.

Early season fishing
Fishing the later part of the catch and release early season in Wisconsin with a friend.

Lastly, at least for this post, human dimensions researchers are often interested in user conflicts because these are one of the surest sources of user dissatisfaction. Before getting into angler conflicts, the importance of conflicts is most evident when one user group's activities directly negatively impact another user group's experience and thus satisfaction. Conflicts tend to be hierarchical - some uses impact others more than that use is affected by others. Because user conflicts are nearly unavoidable, we have trails that only allow hiking, horseback riding, or ATV use. The ATV user is going to have a larger impact on the horseback rider and the hiker than they have on the ATV user. A multi-use trail is unlikely to satisfy many users unless it is very lightly used or another way to separate users is concocted. How happy would you be if your favorite hiking or bicycling trail was opened up to ATV use? Exactly!

Among anglers, conflicts are not as direct as they are among the trail users. That is, I do not care how you are fishing, I just care that I have some space to do my thing in peace and quiet. I give people their space and hope for the same from others. Once in a very great while I have another angler do something that I view are really dumb that irritates me. This is almost always "getting in my way" - we all have our stories of getting "high-holed". It does not happen all that often and almost always when I have talked to the person doing it, they were inexperienced and had no idea about stream etiquette. Every once in a while you simply run into an asshole...

A wooded Driftless stream
Want some peace and quiet - fish where few others are willing to fish. Bring your roll cast with you...

It seems that for trout anglers, the more significant conflicts do not happen on the stream but revolve around harvest and to a lesser degree, access and regulations. On-stream conflicts may occur between different river users. In particular, boaters and anglers are often in conflict, thus a number of larger rivers have restrictions on what time of day rafters can use the river or if inflatable craft can be used at all. This is to minimize user group conflicts.

Explore some of the trout fishing social media sites and you will see conflicts. Fairly recently, someone posted a ten fish limit of Brown Trout all over 14 inches, ranging up to about 18 inches. My first thought was, "that is pretty selfish" and I wish people would harvest fish more intelligently. Of course the online argument went as you might expect, which is to say, poorly. It is legal, the regulations are there for a reason (yeah, not really...), and they are well within their right to keep their limit as they wish. Who the hell are you to tell them what to do?! And I do not disagree except to say that I still think it is quite selfish but there are few laws against selfishness. For the record, I stayed out of the online argument because rarely have a seen much good come from them.

If you are harvest-oriented, you typically see nothing wrong with keeping what you catch - nor should you (within reason...). If you mostly catch and release, you know that others harvesting relatively rare, large trout may negatively affect your future angling satisfaction. I think it is pretty self-evident that if everyone were to keep what they caught that was legal most times they went out, our waters would need to have much different regulations. Regulations, as I have written about before, are as much social as they are biological - maybe more social than biological, if anything. The difficulty in this discussion is that individual decisions affect other individuals that may have made other decisions - that is a nutshell, is what brings anglers into conflict.

Old Wisconsin fishing signs
Regulations - one of the largest sources of angler conflicts.

Another source of angler conflict is around regulations - not surprisingly, largely related to harvest - and then issues of access. By issues of access, largely I am talking about fishing methods more than I am being able to access waters of the state. If a section of stream is artificial lures and flies only - or in the case of the early catch and release season - the entire state is artificial only; that has an affect on those that want to fish bait. This comes back to user group conflicts and some users having more effect on the resource than others and interfering with other's potential satisfaction.

I assume if you have read this far, you have been left with more questions than answers. That is because it is a complex topic and there is not a single, simple answer. Dealing with people is tough - especially lots of people.

So what are the answers? To me, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has done a great job of providing a diversity of experiences for all anglers. Within a half hour drive from home I can be on streams that are catch and release, "green" (5 trout, no size limit), five fish under 12 inches, and ten fish, no size limit. And I can be on streams that average 30 or more feet in width and on streams that I can easily jump across. Wooded streams and pasture streams. Essentially, there is something for (just about) everyone. Provide a diversity of experiences and allow users to fish the places that appeal to them. Now granted, this is a whole lot easier to accomplish in my neck of the woods than it is in say, Southeast Wisconsin where there are more people and fewer trout resources and much less potential.

The answer is not perfect but it is the best answer that we have. As attributed to John Lydgate,

You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

In a nutshell, that is human dimensions of wildlife and fisheries.

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