Angler Apps Citizen Science and Recreational Fisheries Management

By Lawrence Gunther
President, Blue Fish Canada

Introduction: Many anglers strive to keep better track of where and when they go fishing, the conditions at the time, and what worked or didn’t. They do this in order to turn experience into knowledge for their own benefit and, if possible, to further research and enhance resource management of fisheries. Numerous angler apps keep appearing in the market that claim to do it all. But just as with fishing, expectations and reality don’t always align.

What Apps Do: Angler apps provide a convenient means for tracking real-time data about our fishing activity. Using smartphones and tablets, anglers are able to record, store, retrieve, and even transmit a wide variety of data. According to an authority on the research application of angler apps, Dr. Paul Venturelli Director of Environmental Sciences at Ball State University Indiana says that some angler apps now automatically record data such as date and time, weather, location, moon phase, and the GPS coordinates of the route travelled throughout the day. Additional data can be manually entered, such as fish species, number caught, size and condition, location of each capture, water temperature, depth and method of angling, a photo, and if the fish was harvested or released. According to Dr. Venturelli, data collected can make anglers more knowledgeable and effective, provide support to research initiatives, and might someday be used by regulators to manage fishing pressure and fish stocks.

What Apps don’t do: Anglers have made it abundantly clear that they won’t enter data that could give away location information that is specific to hard-earned prized fishing hotspots. They are reluctant to share this important information with other anglers. Researchers interested in studying a specific species of fish are often disappointed with the low number of anglers who submit relevant data for a specific water body or fish species. Regulators remain unconvinced that the data that is collected or reported by these apps accurately reflect the true experience of each angler. No doubt, there is still lots of room for app improvement, especially as more angler apps are released every year.

Privacy: All people who fish want to become better anglers. It’s why we are keenly interested in the success of others. And yet, we can’t help but brag about our own fishing successes even though we know our fellow anglers are more interested in deciphering where and how we caught the fish than they are in the specific fish we caught. For this reason, developers of angler apps are continuously searching for that perfect balance between sharing and privacy. And central to reaching this balance is ensuring anglers continue to have say over what information is shared and with whom.

Integration: Industry is capitalizing on the growing trend of anglers using apps to track their personal fishing efforts. Technologies are being integrated to offer anglers a seamless electronic data collection and display experience. For example, the Anglr app, Lowrance Sonar, and Abu Garcia fishing rod companies now offer anglers the ability to press a button built into the fishing rod itself to convey data to the smartphone app which, in turn, communicates with the sonar unit. The end-result is a wide range of data being collected, recorded and displayed through a variety of devices.

Resource Management: Governments are also beginning to pay attention to the growing popularity of angler apps. A recent report issued by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) states:  “When electronic reporting is part of a probability-based sampling survey design, it has the potential to reduce data collection costs and improve the quality of reported information.” What NOAA is hoping is that at some point, sufficient data will be logged for use in expanding the findings of more traditional, and costly, creel surveys. The NOAA report goes on to say that for these apps to produce fish population level estimates based on electronically reported angler catch-data, a large number of anglers would have to use the apps consistently, and to report accurate information about their fishing trips.

The NOAA recommends that a “statistically valid probability-based sampling survey” would need to validate any self-reported data by eliminating any “outlier” data points that have little in common with the majority of reports. In addition, any survey would have to monitor reporting frequency and track the frequency of trips that are not being reported.

Qualitative or Quantitative: The NOAA report raises important questions about the validity of data that is collected by angler apps. It suggests this raw form of data is suitable only as a qualitative means of supporting citizen science research and is not reliable as quantitative data, essential for assessing and adjusting fishing rules and regulations. In a nutshell, there is an abundance of data being collected through angler apps, but there are surprisingly few instances where government researchers and policy makers use the information.

Bias: The NOAA study points out that when recreational catch estimates are produced using data collected through an opt-in website or mobile app, “the estimates are likely to be biased.” This means that anglers can’t always be counted on to accurately report the results of their day’s fishing. People may not think it’s relevant that they made, let’s say, 9,999 casts without catching a Muskie, or that the Muskie they did catch but didn’t bother reporting wasn’t anything close to their personal best. But knowing how much effort it took to achieve success is just as important as tracking the number of juvenile Muskies in a system, or the number of days fished without a single successful capture. None of this may be regarded by anglers as valuable data.

Creel Surveys: Governments conduct creel surveys to inform the creation of policies, regulations, and efforts to rebuild fish stocks. The data are collected by surveying anglers at boat launches and shore fishing locations. The data contain information on catch rates, species caught, numbers of fish harvested or returned, and the general area being fished over a set time period. The problem with creel surveys, according to Sean Simmons, CEO of Anglers Atlas and inventor of the MyCatch App, is that they can cost upwards of $25,000 to survey a single body of water. This makes them ineffective at monitoring overall fishing pressure and fish stock health.

Citizen Science: Fish researchers are highly dependent on anglers as citizen scientists to locate, capture, and report tagged fish. While anglers may be notoriously secretive about their fishing hot spots, researchers are achieving success in convincing them that reporting catch data is in the best interest of the sport and resource overall.

Research: Researchers are also turning to anglers to assist with targeted research initiatives that involve electronic reporting technology. These are time-limited research initiatives that often focus on fish species of mutual concern. Without the support of anglers, the research would not be possible at even four times the cost. Without this research, anglers would have no idea about whether their beloved sport fish species are imperilled or recovering. Unfortunately, maintaining the interest of anglers in longer-term research initiatives is proving difficult since apps may be good at collecting data, they are surprisingly weak at facilitating the two-way communication that is essential for maintaining longer term angler engagement.

Tournaments: Electronic reporting of fish captures during fishing tournaments is already well underway. Many tournament organizers post tournament results in real time as the competition unfolds. Typically, this identifies the number of anglers, total hours fished, location and weather, and the number and size of fish caught. The recently launched Major League Fishing tournament series has taken catch reporting to the next level by requiring anglers to report the total number and size of all fish caught, instead of the competitors transporting their fish to the event weigh-in station. On-line fishing communities are also taking the next step and encouraging their members to report their individual fishing results, similar to the approach Muskie Canada initiated back in the 1970s with their catch log program.

Catch, Record, Release: Increasingly, fishing clubs are experimenting with electronic reporting apps to provide their members with both collective and real-time results. Many club events now use Facebook to record catches during club outings and competitive events. Individual posts include catch, measure, photograph, and release data. The problem with using Facebook to store such data is the inability of researchers to electronically “scrape” data from Facebook pages, making it necessary to manually transcribe what has been posted.

Bucket List Fishing: Even if governments continue to perceive data generated by catch reports by anglers using apps as unreliable, this doesn’t mean they won’t someday become the norm. Many young anglers are choosing to use apps to track their fishing effort and successes, and to share with others details about their fishing results. In short, a new generation of anglers seems less concerned with privacy and more interested in pursuing one-off bucket list fishing challenges, and then enthusiastically sharing their experiences with others.

Sustainable Management: If fishing rules, regulations, and stocking efforts are to respond efficiently to fishing pressure and other factors that impact fish stocks and fish health, then some sort of system will be required to track and report on angler fishing efforts that are specific to individual bodies of water. The alternative is for anglers to continue to self-regulate based on what retired fish biologist and Outdoor Canada Magazine fishing editor Gord Pyzer calls “pulse fishing.” More on that next.

Pulse Fishing: We all practice pulse fishing to one degree or another. We hear about an up-and-coming hot fishery through the grape vine and then check it out for ourselves. Word spreads, and before you know it the fishery is the new “community fishing hole.” This lasts for as long as the fishing remains relatively good. But as soon as it starts to drop off, we shift our fishing effort to the next reported hotspot, allowing the depleted location to enter a period of re-building. Since it’s seldom the case that all the fish were caught, these fish stocks will slowly rebound until the fishery, once again, is rediscovered. It may not be pretty, but it’s what happens now.

Self-Management: Until governments invest considerably more money in monitoring popular fishing locations, it may just be the case that fishing apps will become the go-to tool for anglers to soften the peaks and valleys experienced by popular fishing locations.  Additionally, spreading out fishing pressure over more spots instead of huge numbers of anglers moving on massefrom one spot to another could mean less time and fuel spent chasing down false leads. And that’s good for the planet. Both anglers and the environment could be better served through the transparent sharing of accurate real-time fishing data.

Managing Angling Pressure: Whether we ever get to the point that individual fishing locations are managed based on real-time fishing pressure is difficult to say. Many of the commercial fisheries are now managed this way, so it may not be that far off before there’s a convergence between science-based fish management and the collection and accurate reporting of individual fishing effort. The challenge is how such mandatory reporting can be enforced. While not yet electronic, similar resource management practices are already being used in Wisconsin by anglers fishing for Lake Sturgeon.

Grass Roots Initiatives: It’s unlikely that government will adopt the approach of using self reporting data to manage fishing pressure any time soon. But we may not be that far away from changes at the lake or cottage association level. Look to them as they consider the adoption of new voluntary strategies for managing their shared resource. After all, it’s better to have informed local anglers, than people continuing to fish with the false expectation that the supply is infinite. Not knowing can lead to cottagers on a lake harvesting a limit of fish every weekend, or   assuming that the number of fish in their lake has dropped to dangerous levels, resulting in calls to unnecessarily curtail or suspend angling altogether. It’s the lack of knowing that fuels ignorance and resentment.

The Future: Builders of angler apps are consulting with stakeholders (including anglers, tournament organizers, researchers, government biologists, etc.) to advance the use of their new apps. We are now witnessing the beginning of a shift in how we manage our fisheries collectively. Angler apps will become the norm, if not an essential component of the management of recreational fisheries and their oversight. It’s no longer a question of if, but when.

Audio Resources:

Link below to hear Dr. Venturelli discuss with the author the strengths, weaknesses and future of angler apps on the podcast “Blue Fish Radio”:

Link below to hear Sean Simmons discuss with the author how his MyCatch app is being used by anglers to support fisheries research on the podcast “Blue Fish Radio”:

Link below to hear Gord Pyzer discuss with the author the pros and cons of pulse fishing on the podcast “Blue Fish Radio”:

Lawrence Gunther is the Director of the charity Blue Fish Canada and the host of the podcast Blue Fish Radio.