What we talk about when we talk about fishers

By Xiong Zhang

We have a lot to learn from fishers.

There is a tendency in marine science and conservation — particularly in China, where I work, but in many countries — to overlook the wisdom and experience of these people who actually spend the most time on the water, working with fish. Instead we must look to the “experts,” the biologists and ecologists. Or so the thinking goes.

As a fish “expert” myself (I’m a doctoral student with Project Seahorse), the more I research I do, the more I realize how little I know about fish compared to the local fishers I’ve worked with. During my graduate study in China (2010-2013, before joining P.S.), I spent four months per year doing fisheries surveys in the Upper Yangtze River. Tens of thousands of fishers live on this highly productive river. During that period, I visited them at local fishing ports every morning and surveyed their overnight catches. Most of the fishers were in their 40s to 60s, and have fished for more than two decades. I was always surprised by the fact that they could name the species of every fish they caught without a second glance. They knew when and where the different fish species reproduce, what habitats they prefers, and if and when they migrate — the kind of things we scientists spend our professional lives trying to understand!

Unfortunately, I soon realized that fishers’ knowledge is totally ignored in many places. Of course there are notable exceptions to this, with journals like Marine Policy and some researchers publishing pioneering work on how to incorporate local knowledge into scientific studies; but in China, for example, scientists tend to dismiss these methods as non-scientific, and rarely tap into fishers’ knowledge as a result. I’m puzzled about why this is. 

For my doctoral work on the conservation of Chinese seahorses, I still insist on learning from local fishers. As I learned during a recent research trip, they are an incredible resource when it comes to finding seahorses, since many have spent decades fishing and “studying” these rare creatures. They can tell which habitats seahorses use by checking substrate scraps trapped in the net. I’m very grateful for their generosity and do my best to draw on their knowledge in a scientific way. 

If only more government and policymakers would take fishers seriously. More than one colleague has told me that although Western governments in theory allow fishers to participate in policymaking, few actually pay attention to what fishers say. In China fishers have even less input. And as a result, they ignore the policies that do get created, leaving many laws just words on paper. 

As I continue my work, I’m increasingly convinced that fisheries governance will never be effective without fishers’ participation, marine conservation cannot be advanced without fishers' support.

Xiong Zhang is a PhD student with Project Seahorse.