Fishing for data

FaceForward: The People and Stories of Memorial
By Kelly Foss | Nov. 26, 2014

Fogo fishers

There are few who know the waters around Fogo Island better than the men and women who turn to it every day for their livelihood.

A project just getting underway at Memorial University is hoping to draw on that knowledge. It aims to help the fishing community develop research questions and data collection protocols that are meaningful to their community. The hope is, over time, this can aid in testing and developing strategies that can help them effectively manage their resources.

For hundreds of years, fishers have combined their long-term knowledge of local fishing grounds with data collected daily, such as ocean temperature, depth and bottom substrate to determine where they will go for that day’s catch. Many use sophisticated onboard instruments to help make that decision. But this information is not usually stored or used further once the day’s fishing is complete; in effect the data is just “cast overboard.”

A team at Memorial, including representatives from the Marine Institute, in partnership with the Shorefast Foundation, has received funding from the Harris Centre at Memorial to work with Fogo fishers to create a system that will store this data.

A Canadian charity, Shorefast uses a new model for economic and cultural resilience based on social engagement, strategic investment in community capital and inclusive local economies. The foundation is currently focused on Fogo Island, specifically working to revitalize the local arts scene, the development of a geotourism industry and a micro-lending program for entrepreneurs.

Dr. Yolanda Wiersma, a landscape ecologist with the Department of Biology, is one of the researchers involved with the project.

“I have been working for a number of years on a citizen science website,, that caught the eye of some folks at the Harris Centre who matched us up with the Shorefast Foundation,” Dr. Wiersma said. “Shorefast has developed a new ocean ethic for Fogo Island and one of the pillars of it is citizen science. But they didn’t really know how to go about starting a citizen science project.”

Citizen science, or crowd-sourced science, is scientific work undertaken by members of the general public, usually in collaboration with scientists. The goal of this particular project is to figure out how to conduct citizen science with the resource users of Fogo Island in a way that’s meaningful and useful to them and effects meaningful change.

“Lots of research projects in the past have used fishermen and women to collect data by filling out a log sheet or counting the number of a particular bird they see. The fishermen send in the data, but they never know what happens to it,” said Dr. Wiersma. “What we’d like to do is to come up with a project that is driven by the fishermen and women, that answers questions that they need to help them in their work.”

The collected data will stay with the fishers, but be shared with Memorial. The university will then help to communicate the findings to the wider community.

“We envision a website to store the data in, but we’ll also help them with ways to make appropriate maps, figures and charts,” Dr. Wiersma said. “Since getting the funding we also discovered a stack of logbooks from region covering the late ’70s right up to the moratorium. They are paper logbooks so one of our first projects is to digitize these and use the data to infer patterns around population and spatial trends by putting it all in a geographic information system to visualize the information in a way that’s never been done.”

The data could then be used in comparison with new data collected to identify past and current trends, which could inform hypotheses, which could then be tested. And by communicating the information to a wider local audience, the partnership could also increase ocean literacy.

“Because the Shorefast Foundation also has involvement with tourism and public outreach, we can probably link some of those aspects. It would be a nice spinoff to encourage people to learn about their own ocean backyard. So that’s something else we can explore as well.”



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