Understanding Recreational Fishing for Food in the Great Lakes

Description: Recreational fishing is widespread around the globe, with approximately 200-700 million individuals participating annually and contributing to local, regional, and national economies, including the Laurentian Great Lakes (World Bank 2012). Importantly, this estimate does not include emerging recreational fisheries in low and middle-income nations, nor non-traditional fisheries in more developed countries, where minority, immigrant, and vulnerable communities often utilize non-recreational species for subsistence. Despite a flexible definition and a real contribution for local economies, recreational fishing is often conceived of and managed as a leisure activity. In addition to its importance for recreational purposes, fishing is a globally ubiquitous food and cultural activity. Food security – defined as “when all people at all times have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences” (FAO 1996) – is a critical need of people world-wide, including North America, encompassing aspects of nutrition, culture, and social issues that are fundamental to daily life.  

When people immigrate to a new country, they often bring traditions and values around food that can impact the sense of belonging and well-being among immigrant people in their new surroundings. For some immigrants, fishing may be one of the most important cultural linkages between their new lives and that which they left behind. Therefore, understanding the value of fishing to immigrant anglers as well as the conditions in which immigrants engage in fishing is important for managing a potentially unrecognized fishery. This is particularly relevant at this time, with historically high immigration rates in Canada and refugee pressure in the United States. Research throughout the Great Lakes region has identified a potential sub-population of the recreational fishing sector that engages in this activity for outcomes beyond leisure, which includes nutritional security, cultural and traditional preservations, and economic relief. At present, there is little knowledge about the quantity and distribution of this recreational fishing sub-population in the Great Lakes. In our work, we propose to call this sub-fishery ‘provisioning fisheries’a multidimensional fishery that offers many ‘provisions’ including recreation, food and nutritional security, economic relief, socio-cultural practices, health and wellbeing. There is some evidence that these recreational fishers rely on shore/urban angling for nutritional security, and are often more underserved and/or immigrant communities. The abundance and impact of this sub-population is currently unknown as several natural resource management agencies throughout the Great Lakes region do not conduct creel surveys with shore anglers, potentially resulting in the undervaluation of the Great Lakes fisheries. Furthermore, the Great Lakes region is immigrant dense, with large cities such as Toronto, Detroit, and Chicago and smaller centers such as Windor and Rochester having some of the highest rates of immigration in North America. At present, immigration accounts for half of regional population growth throughout the Great Lakes region and it is expected to increase in the coming decade. As a result, fishing pressure from this sub-population of fishers is more than likely going to increase and the sustainability of Great Lakes fisheries depends – to a currently unknown extent – on integrating provisioning fishery harvests into management decision-making.

Of further concern, provisioning fishers may be less aware or concerned about the risks posed by anthropogenic contaminants, particularly mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Consumption guidelines vary by lake and fish species in the Great Lakes basin, and under certain scenarios can lead to health risks. These issues are especially relevant in and around urban areas within the Great Lakes where these chemicals reach high concentrations in fish and 4.2 million residents have reported eating fish caught (commercial or recreational fishing) from one of the Great Lakes. Depending on consumption rates of fish from the Great Lakes, managing provisioning fisheries may also require strategies to mitigate contaminant risk.

Our goal is to gather researchers and community-level stakeholders (e.g., government agency, community associations and organizations) who have worked in this space and with the communities of interest to discuss, share, and exchange knowledge and experiences related to reaching and studying this important understudied fishing group. This group includes approximately 20-25 members from Canada and the United States who have research and on-the-ground experience working with provisioning fisheries and/or similar hard-to-reach fishing communities in the Great Lakes and other areas of North America. This working group is diverse, being well represented in gender, visible minorities, and people at various stages of their careers, including two PhD students. From this, we aim to use the knowledge and ideas exchanged from the summit and incorporate these into methodologies and techniques for our spring 2024 field work which include intercept survey sampling and focus groups/interviews to better target provisioning fishers who fish for food and cultural connection.

Goals, we anticipate several outcomes from this summit:

    1. Begin developing a network of Great Lakes provisioning fisheries researchers and practitioners and identify local ambassadors for provisioning fisheries research;
    2. Gather feedback and lessons learned from local and global experts on methods and approaches for hard-to-reach populations in the context of fisheries, which will inform a subsequent research agenda or special issue on this topic.
    3. Generate ideas on future projects and grants (e.g., NSERC Alliance, GLFT Human Dimensions Grant, and GLFC).

At present, this research is being completed on both Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, with hopes to expand the survey into Lakes Michigan, Huron and Superior in the future. Results from this summit will inform and support the next phase of our research in 2024 and beyond including improved methods and approaches to reach this understudied population, as well as identification of local ambassadors who can facilitate focus groups in various areas around the Great Lakes. Understanding how distinct and substantive this relatively unknown subpopulation of fishers will aid local policymakers to understand the importance of provisioning fisheries on the lives of vulnerable and underserved citizens whose numbers are expected to increase in the future. Furthermore the importance of this food source for these groups is particularly concerning regarding contaminants such as PCBs and mercury, in fish. Understanding the provisioning fisheries prevalence, abundance and reliance on fish throughout the Great Lakes will not only benefit fisheries managers, but will also aid these communities in understanding the risks associated with fish consumption and maintaining their food source and cultural connection in a safe manner.