Merging science and community involvement in fishery conservation
By Louella Losinio
Fishery biologist Leilani Sablan is breaking new grounds as a young CHamoru scientist involved in an innovative creel data collection program known as "Guihan for Guahan" (Fish for Guam), which encourages local fishers to actively participate in fisheries research and conservation efforts.
The University of Guam's Sea Grant-supported program takes a "citizen science" approach, in which community members contribute to local initiatives and research. This inclusive approach is essential in strengthening the bond between the scientific community and local traditions, Sablan said.
“Citizen science is how members of the community can give back to their island by participating in local initiatives and research without needing any special qualifications or degrees in science,” she said.
Sablan said the data generated by local fishers are important. “Fisheries-dependent data, as the term implies, depends largely on the contribution of reported catch within commercial and non-commercial fisheries. When fishers share their catch information with fisheries biologists, we are able to assess species composition, size structure, and harvested biomass on a long-term basis to monitor any changes over time.”
She said the more fishers contribute to fisheries-dependent data, the "richer" and more representative of the fisheries that data will be.
Sablan emphasizes that encouraging participation at a large scale has its challenges. It takes time to incorporate fish-measuring habits into daily fishing routines, and it can be difficult for individuals to see how their small-scale participation contributes to the bigger picture, especially when the results are expected for years or even decades in the future.
“I try to address these issues by offering the tools and training necessary to encourage participation, while also helping to visualize how contribution towards fisheries research can help our future generation of fishers to have bountiful harvests. Rich data leads to representative trends at the fisheries- and species-levels, and these trends allow appropriate management strategies to be generated and implemented,” she said.
One of the successes of citizen science involvement in fisheries is Sablan's own thesis on reef landings in Guam. This research was made possible through the contributions of the fishing community in providing catch information.
“Over a one-year period, more than 4,000 lbs. of reef fish comprising over 160 species of reef fish were recorded. Because of the vast amount of data contributed, I was able to analyze how environmental factors can serve as drivers/predictors of reef landings in Guam. Collectively, our findings reflected traditional/local knowledge that is now documented scientifically, which is important information for resource managers to have,” she said.
For Guihan for Guahan, she said maintaining data quality and reliability from citizen scientists relies on building trust and nurturing strong relationships with participants. Sea Grant ensures the confidentiality and effective utilization of the data submitted, emphasizing the critical role of trust in fostering collaboration between the fishing community and fisheries scientists.
She added that education and outreach efforts play a crucial role in engaging and training citizen scientists in fisheries research projects
Sablan emphasizes the importance of merging science and culture to safeguard Guam's natural resources for the future. Speaking at a STEM Conference in April organized by UOG College of Natural and Applied Sciences, she stressed the need to protect Guam's reef fishes, whose stocks are declining due to overfishing.
With more people and fishing activities, the island has witnessed a decrease in fish stocks over time. Sablan highlighted that high fishing pressure has caused a shift in the size of some species, emphasizing the importance of studying specific fishes to understand their life history and response to fishing pressure.
Additionally, Sablan pointed out other threats to reef fish stocks, such as sedimentation from badlands runoff and irresponsible development, as well as coral bleaching caused by rising ocean temperatures due to greenhouse gases and sedimentation. To contribute to fish stock preservation, Sablan urged Guam fishers to harvest only what they need and use sustainable methods. She also encouraged their participation in monitoring programs like the UOG Sea Grant Creel program.
Citizen science initiatives in fisheries biology can help address global challenges such as overfishing, bycatch, and habitat conservation by spreading awareness and engaging fishers in sustainable practices. She said involving the community in fisheries management creates a sense of responsibility toward the preservation of reef fisheries.
“Getting the community involved, especially fishers whose actions can directly influence their environment, helps spread awareness on the issues facing our reef fisheries," Sablan said. "Involvement also entails awareness on the solutions and sustainable actions we can take to ensure our reef fisheries can sustain future generations."