Great Lakes fishery scientists and managers help shape tools that will prepare them for climate change

By on August 18, 2014

Climate change will likely affect the Great Lakes fishery, potentially shifting where, for example, salmon thrive or when walleye start spawning. Scientists looking to build models to predict those changes are turning to the fishery’s managers to make sure the tools are as useful as possible.

Rather that just building models and hoping managers used them, the modelers teamed with researchers with Purdue University and Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant to survey policy makers and biologists of the Great Lakes fisheries world on their climate change information needs.

The idea is that the modelers can focus their work to meet those needs, “versus just sitting in the ivory tower producing science that nobody ever wants to actually see or use,” said Linda Prokopy, associate professor of natural resource social science at Purdue.

Prokopy is a co-author of a study of the fishery managers’ responses that was published online ahead of print in the Journal of Great Lakes Research.

The surveys and focus groups tapped the members of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission and its various lake and technical committees. The level of participation and quality of responses were both high, Prokopy said, which made it clear that fishery managers are interested in how climate change is going to impact the resource. The participants tended to list invasive species and habitat loss as greater long-term threats to the fishery’s stability than climate change, but also noted that they aren’t separate issues. For example, climate change has the potential to exacerbate invasive species issues by making the water hospitable to more species.

Great Lakes fishery scientists gillnetting on Lake Huron (Credit: R. Redman, LMBS)

The surveys revealed a feeling among the managers that there is already data available that could help them better prepare for climate change, but they’re just not sure where to get it.

“That’s not always true, Prokopy said. “In the case of Great Lakes fisheries, we don’t fully know what the impacts of climate change are going to be to the resource. But there is information out there that they probably haven’t seen.”

Some of that is likely locked away in obscure journal articles or produced by an agency that hasn’t disseminated it widely, Prokopy said. The surveys also leaned more about how to best publish information to make sure managers can access it.

Not surprisingly, the participants were interested in more information about how climate change might affect commercially and recreationally valuable species like lake trout, walleye and yellow perch. They showed the greatest interest in data on water temperature, wind intensity, water levels and precipitation.

They also preferred modeled data that projects conditions 20 years from now, rather than 50 or 80. The near-term data were seen as more interesting to their agencies and more reliable than longer-term projections.

The preference for short-term data also highlighted that fisheries researchers across the Great Lakes apparently share a morbid sense of humor

“Interestingly,” the authors wrote in the study, “in five out of six of the focus groups, at least one respondent said (half-jokingly) that later time scales were not important because, ‘We [the focus group participants] will be dead.’”

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