Fishing harbors community; development and climate change threaten it

Man in cap stands on a pier holding a fishing rod, the line of which is cast into a body of blue water under a blue sky with white clouds.

Fisherman Mark Brooks fishes off the Sunshine Skyway North Pier. Mark is just one example of how fishing fosters community and sustainability. (Carter Weinhofer/Eckerd College)

Related Topics:
Oceans, Storyfest 2022

The breeze was constant on the Sunshine Skyway North Fishing Pier. Wind could be felt against bare skin and heard zipping through the fishing lines of dozens of avid fishermen and women. 

“I took the lead!” a woman shouted to her husband. She reels in a small, bait-sized fish. But nothing big enough to keep. 

“Sixteen to fifteen,” her husband, Mark, said. “We keep track of fish and see who catches the most.” 

Their cat, Scamper, roams around the truck of her owners Mark and his wife, Michelle. White patches stick out on Scamper’s mostly brown fur; her pink, sparkled collar, though, stands out even more. Two years ago, Mark and Michelle rescued Scamper from a bad home life.

Now, Scamper likes to prowl on the piers and lounge on the dash of their truck. The truck is more than just a relaxation spot for Scamper, though. 

“I got a grill on the back of my truck with charcoal,” Mark said. “I’ll filet (fish) right there.” 

Once the fish are cooked, Mark says he’ll offer the cooked filets to anyone around. During one of the last weekends of December 2021, Mark said he caught a lot of Spanish mackerel to cook for everyone on the pier.

But cooked fish aren’t the only thing being shared among the fishing community in the Tampa Bay area. According to Mark and Michelle, the community has always been friendly to them. 

“You run out of bait, you don’t have any money, someone will give you bait. Always,” Mark said. “If you need line, someone will give you line. Whatever you need if you don’t have it, the next fisherman will share it.” 

Interactions like this show just how important fishing communities are to people around the world. 

“I would describe (urban fishing) as vital, because it’s vital in so many ways,” Dr. Noëlle Boucquey of Eckerd College said. “There’s so many different benefits that people get from fishing in urban spaces.” 

Boucquey and anthropologist Dr. Jessie Fly have been researching interactions like this through a study called the “Urban Fishing Project,” in which student observers go out and take field observations and record interviews with people fishing in various areas around the Tampa Bay area. 

Boucquey has been interested in fisheries since her days of being a graduate student. During her early years at Eckerd, she found that Fly had similar interests. They decided to collaborate and start this research project. 

“Fishing is such a great example of activities that bring people in close relationships to their environment,” Boucquey said. “So it’s a great way to study the more theoretical concepts about how people develop their relationships with their environments in particular spaces.” 

Dr. Angela Collins is a Florida Sea Grant Extension Agent through the University of Florida who works with the Manatee, Hillsborough, and Sarasota counties. Collins connects closely with commercial and recreational fisheries stakeholders, and agrees that people more closely related to these sorts of environments have a stronger desire to protect them. 

“People want to protect what they care about,” Collins said. “And if they don’t have the opportunity to experience fishing, they’re not going to have that experience and passion to want to preserve it.” 

Boucquey and Fly published some of their findings in a 2021 paper titled “Contested Commoning: Urban Fishing Spaces and Community Wellbeing.” 

They summarize in the paper that fishing is valued as much more than a simple pastime. 

“Fish provide food, cultural connections, and social capital currency while the spaces and practices of fishing provide relaxation and entertainment,” the paper states.

People go fishing for many different reasons, something that is backed up by Boucquey and Fly’s paper. Whether it’s for sport, subsistence or to just have a clear mental space, fishing can play a huge part in people’s lives. 

In terms of subsistence, this research found that 77% of respondents kept fish that they caught, while 17% of the respondents could be classified as food insecure. On top of that, 11% of respondents used fishing to prevent hunger. 

Fishing also supports diverse communities and interactions between diverse groups of people, both economically and ethnically. 

“Our surveys showed that there was a huge range, people with very high incomes next to people with very low incomes,” Boucquey said. “And that in and of itself is really interesting because there’s not a lot of spaces where you find those people together.” 

From 293 respondents in Boucquey and Fly’s surveys, 52% identified as “White including mixed,” 15% as “Black including mixed,” 22% as “Latinx including mixed,” 11% as “Asian including mixed,” ” 3% as “Mixed, no ethnicities specified” and 3% as “Native American or Caribbean including mixed.” 

Fishing communities all around the world vary in their social dynamics, but those in Florida especially have a profound sense of identity. 

“For people that live here, it’s a source of identity for a lot of people,” Collins said. “There’s the family heritage, you grew up fishing with your parents and want to share it with your kids. But then there’s also the importance of being able to go out and catch dinner if you need to.” 

Fisheries, along with being promoters of community, are also strong economic drivers. In Florida alone, fisheries generate close to $15 billion according to a study from 2017

“Our recreational angling is a huge economic driver for the state of Florida,” Collins said. “I mean, we’re the fishing capital of the world. More world record fish are landed here than anywhere else on the planet.” 

But climate change is a cause for concern in these communities. Not only can projected sea level rise threaten the physical spaces people fish from, but numerous other impacts of climate change threaten ocean chemistry and fisheries patterns. 

“Climate change will impact fisheries and aquaculture through multiple drivers and pathways in ways that will be strongly dependent on specific characteristics of the different systems,” the 2017 study states. 

For example, drivers from climate change like temperature, rainfall, altered circulation, acidification and habitat loss can all have profound impacts on fishery environments, according to the 2017 paper. 

This study raises the point that these types of changes will without a doubt have an impact on the benefits fishers get from their catches, speaking economically. 

Additionally, coastal development threatens the accessibility to fishing grounds. 

“A lot of people want to live here and build right on the water,” Collins said. “But these waterfront areas are also really important to remain accessible for seafood producers, for anglers in general, to be able to get to the water.” 

Collins stated that being able to get on the water without having to drive a considerable distance to get to a boat ramp is important, since so many households have some connection to fisheries. 

“If you lived on any street, probably every third house is going to have a fishing rod in it,” Collins said. 

Sometimes, fishing is just simply a way to take a few hours and relax; the simple casting of a line, the breeze off of a pier or the smell of the saltwater can be therapeutic. And to some, it’s the only way to put food on the table. 

For those of us who buy our seafood, Collins said that one of the keys to sustainability is the choices people make. 

“When you’re picking an item off of the menu or at the restaurant or buying seafood at the grocery store, just knowing that you want to protect the ocean helps you make better decisions as a consumer,” Collins said.

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