CONCORDE Partners with Local Fishers on Citizen Science Initiative

(From Fall 2017 Newsletter) Contributing Author: Jessie Kastler, CONCORDE Education and Outreach Coordinator

Following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, scientists, including those now working with the Consortium for Oil Spill Exposure Pathways in Coastal River-Dominated Ecosystems (CONCORDE), heard many questions about the spill from local communities, fishers, and other stakeholders. They knew that much more research would be needed to understand the impacts of the spill. Because answers were not readily available, the scientists began to notice the public losing trust in them and the scientific process.

A community of local fishers in Mississippi, including many who are refugees from Vietnam, have relied on the Gulf of Mexico fisheries for their livelihood for many years. The community was harshly impacted by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and again by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. In some cases, their fishing boats were used in clean up and recovery efforts, so they felt especially connected to the event. They continue to seek answers about the spill’s impact on their livelihood more than seven years later.

Scientists and outreach coordinators with CONCORDE decided to expand on a partnership initiated in 2013 between the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) Marine Education Center (MEC) and the Mississippi Coalition of Vietnamese American Fisher Folks and Families (MSCVAFF), led by Thao Vu, to engage local fishers in the science CONCORDE is doing.

By building a bridge between the scientific community and local fishers, CONCORDE hopes the fishers will begin to understand and trust the process of science. Ideally, their involvement will empower them to speak for themselves and have a stronger voice in decision-making related to the resource they rely on for their livelihood.

CONCORDE’s three-year award through GoMRI provided an opportunity to further develop this partnership and create a long-term citizen science project to integrate the fishers into CONCORDE’s research. The goal is to teach them how to collect temperature and salinity measurements with depth, using conductivity-temperature- depth (CTD) casts. They are also taught how to take notes and record descriptions, adding valuable context to the data they collect. The data are used in CONCORDE’s modeling efforts to understand where oil could go along Mississippi’s complicated coastline. Depth profiles of temperature and salinity at various locations ground truth researchers’ models and help to parameterize them. At a recent training, one of CONCORDE’s modelers gave a presentation on how the data collected by the fishers is helping inform their research and improve the models.

Since 2016, CONCORDE has hosted four training workshops, and more than 24 fishers have participated. Of those, 20 have collected data during their fishing expeditions at least once.

They make five casts in a 24-hour period, during trips that last anywhere from a day to a week. Members of CONCORDE meet the fishers at the docks for conversation, to answer questions, to transfer equipment, and to get to know each other. When needed, Thao Vu attends and serves as an interpreter. CONCORDE compensates them for their time and efforts. The fishers appreciate being taken seriously as a part of the process.

The fishers are learning from the scientists, and incorporating them into CONCORDE’s research is helping to build that trust in the science and the scientific process that was questioned after Deepwater Horizon. But the initiative has had other benefits as well. The value the fishers provide to CONCORDE goes beyond data collection. Fishers have their own understanding of the ocean and the coast, from years spent working on the water. Their interpretations provide valuable new insights into the data, increasing understanding of the quality and limitations of the data, ultimately improving CONCORDE’s models and response capacity in the event of future oil spill events. The MSCVAFF and MEC will continue to build the relationship among researchers and fishers through a new grant from the National Academy of Sciences through which a USM toxicologist will conduct research to assess oil impact on Mississippi Sound oyster reefs.

To learn more, please visit CONCORDE’s blog here and here, and the GoMRI website here.

[Back to the Fall 2017 Newsletter]