Ask any angler about their favorite fishing spot, and you’ll hear all about the big ones they’ve landed — or nearly landed. But ask that angler to support their spot with quantifiable data, and chances are you’ll get little more than a raised eyebrow.
Researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey and Virginia Tech conducted a regional study to map the quality, capacity and demand of freshwater fishing sites in Virginia and North Carolina, providing a definitive answer to an ages-old fishing conundrum: Where are the best opportunities for fishing? The study containing the maps has been posted online ahead of its October 2014 publication date in the journal Ecological Indicators.
“We chose fishing because it was popular and we knew that there were data available,” said Paul Angermeier, USGS scientist and Virginia Tech professor. “We found that we had some reasonable data — not the perfect data, but we thought that we could tell an interesting story.”
That story is bigger than the one that got away, or some legendary fly fishing stream. Fishing, Angermeier said, has cultural and ecological implications that extend beyond its recreational value.
Not that the researchers are understating that value.
“We’re not just crazy about fishing… Well, some of us are,” Angermeier said. “But there’s a larger social and management context in which fishing is a really important activity.”
Recreational fishing contributes to the job market, promotes conservation and provides ecosystem service managers with numerous sets of eyes on delicate aquatic habitats.
Angermeier collaborated with researchers Beatriz Mogollon and Amy Villamagna — both of whom Angermeier said “did the lion’s share of the work” — to analyze fishing sites for key environmental factors that impact recreational anglers and resource managers. These factors include habitat quality, fish abundance, boating access and game-fish stocking, among others.
The research showed that fishing site quality decrease as waterways flowed from the mountains to the sea. Fishing spots in the mountains were the quietest, most private and had more species of fish than those in lowlands. Due to lack of accessibility, the mountains were not subject to the same ecological degradation as other more popular spots.
Gathering data and establishing conceptual models proved to be time-consuming and taxing, Angermeier said.
“For those who aren’t familiar with the ecosystem service literature… it’s not very standardized in method and terminology,” Angermeier said. Picking out the useful information from the banal required a “certain level of expertise and intuition.”
Although the study focused on fishing, Angermeier said he hopes the study’s analytical approach will be applied to other cultural services for which significantly fewer data exist, such as paddling, bird watching and hiking. In many cases, cultural ecosystem managers are forced to make assumptions based on limited data. As more comprehensive data and models are developed, the end users of waterways, trails and parks will benefit from improved management techniques.
“The output of developing this framework is that you can begin to look at management choices in a logical context,” Angermeier said. “You can begin to assess things like the capacity of a system to provide a service, and the demand for that service, and the pressures that diminish that service.”
In the short term, Angermeier said he would like to see other agencies look at, and potentially adopt his team’s approach to cultural service data mapping. But he has a broader goal, as well:
“We hope that [the research] kind of turns a light on for people to recognize that you can view fishing in a different way,” he said.