How big data can help small-scale fisheries

Composite image of researcher James Robinson in the centre between photographs of a fishmarket in the Seychelles
James Robinson, in between coral reef fishery catches and Seychelles' fishing market

A Lancaster University ecologist wins a Leverhulme fellowship to model the impact of climate change on coral reef fisheries and the people who rely on them.

"There is so much ecologists can learn from observational data: large-scale monitoring programmes are incredibly valuable sources of information," says Dr James Robinson, a marine ecologist at Lancaster University, who has been awarded a three-year early career fellowship by the Leverhulme Trust.

Leverhulme Early Career Fellowships help to fund promising post-doctoral researchers to pursue a significant publishable piece of research. James will use his to explore the complex impacts of climate change on coral reefs fisheries, spanning changes in habitat, fish populations and species distributions, as well as impacts on the livelihoods and health of the people who live near reefs.

The aim is to bring together data from a range of monitoring programmes to create one big model of how climate is changing reef habitats, and how this leads to changes in fish populations and fish catches. The project builds on work James has done during his three years at the Lancaster Environment Centre.

James first became excited by the potential of ‘looking at patterns in, visualising and playing with large data sets’ as an undergraduate studying Zoology at Glasgow University. He followed this fascination when choosing a dissertation subject for his Environmental Science Masters at St Andrews University.

"There had been amazing long-term monitoring of seabirds on the Isle of May. I used that and long-term data on sea temperature, looking at patterns between the two to see how climate was affecting ecology. That experience got me interested in marine research."

He then spent three years living on Vancouver Island in Canada, doing a PhD on the impact of fishing on Pacific coral reefs, also funded by the Leverhulme Trust. This time he brought the human element into his research.

 "Some of the islands are inhabited and fished, and others are unpopulated remote atolls. I compared the two looking at fish populations, fish size and habitat quality to understand how humans, through their fishing, change coral reefs. Working in the Pacific I began to understand the huge importance of coral reefs to people, particularly in these tropical island states."

In 2017, James joined the growing marine science group at Lancaster University, led by Professor Nick Graham, one of the world’s most influential researchers. Nick was working on a long-term data set on coral reef ecology in the Seychelles. Started in 1994, the data covered two major incidents of coral bleaching 1998 and 2016.  

"My job was to look at what happens to fisheries after a coral bleaching event, to tie Nick’s data in with long-term fish monitoring data produced by the Seychelles government," says James.

The results were fascinating. About half the bleached reefs recovered well, with fishing stocks reviving to pre-bleaching levels.

"The other half turned into seaweed-scapes, with very different fish populations. There are now huge schools of rabbitfish, which feed on the seaweed, and catch rates of this species have increased since bleaching. Although bleaching has certainly impacted biodiversity, the resilience of fish populations is reassuring from a food security perspective."

In the past two years James has dug deeper into the implications of bleaching for people, through the dietary quality of reef seafood. He has been working with Professor Christina Hicks to understand if the change in fishery catches following bleaching has affected the availability of micronutrients, such as iron and zinc, which are important for human health.

Now the Leverhulme Fellowship gives James the opportunity to lead his own research project, bringing together the knowledge and expertise he has gained and expanding its scope.

"I am scaling up this approach to a lot of countries: we know that several tropical habitats are important for sustaining fish populations, but not the details of how these relationships work after coral bleaching, nor the wider impact on fisheries."

His work will examine a wide range of factors from the kind of fishing gear used to the micronutrients in the catches.

Starting with a case study in Kenya, whose Marine and Fisheries Research Institute have collected data both on habitat and on fishery catches, he will then expand to cover a range of countries across the Indo-Pacific region, where fish populations and types of fisheries can be very different.

James hopes the research will improve predictions about the implications of climate change for fish populations and help to generate ideas about how to manage reef fisheries more sustainably and equitably for the long term.

 "Together with my research partners, the Wildlife Conservation Society, I’ll be writing monitoring reports and policy advice for resource managers that help explain the relationship between their reef habitat and fisheries, and how this might this change in the future."

Although data collaborations and statistical models are the bread and butter of James’ research, he hopes to do some field work himself, if the coronavirus pandemic allows.

"I will visit Kenya and a couple of other countries to meet with fishers and local researchers who collect the data. You get a different understanding on the ground - just visiting a seafood market is a fascinating experience and gives you some idea of how essential coral reefs are for tropical communities."

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