Master's Project presentation
From left to right, Nieman, Chory and Rudman present their research at the MP Symposium

DURHAM, N.C.—When Maggie Chory, Cass Nieman and Alexie Rudman (MEM’19) noticed that few studies have been done on the community of subsistence fishers – people who fish for food – around the Duke Marine Lab, they decided to fill the information gap and collect data through 80 semi-structured interviews with fishers in Carteret County, N.C., as their Master’s Project (MP).

An MP combines the academic rigor of a thesis with the practical experience of an internship.

Working singly or in groups, students apply skills and knowledge they’ve acquired in the classroom to tackle real-world environmental challenges for real clients through a well-formulated and defensible analysis. It is a culminating experience for all Master of Environmental Management (MEM) and Master of Forestry (MF) students at the Nicholas School of the Environment.

Duke Environment corresponded with Chory, Nieman and Rudman, who all recently graduated with an MEM in coastal environmental management, to discuss the goals and key findings of their MP and how the findings could potentially improve outreach to fishers as well as fishing policy.

What is the goal of your MP?
“Because we felt that fishing for food was an important activity in the area, but was not well studied, we wanted to do an initial exploration of the behaviors and values surrounding it.”

What challenges did you encounter with your work?
“It was sometimes difficult to gain the trust of our subjects as many believed that we were checking licenses as part of N.C. Fish and Wildlife, despite us telling them that we were students doing research. This might have prevented people from opening up as much as we would’ve liked.

“Hurricane Florence also greatly impacted our data collection. Our forced evacuation and time spent getting the Marine Lab up and running again left us unable to interview during the month of September, a prime fishing time in Carteret County.”

What are the key findings of your MP?
“We found that a substantial portion -- 81% -- of our respondents fishing in Carteret County consume their catch, and that some rely on it as a source of daily food or share it with family or fellow community members who similarly rely on it.

“We also identified countless examples of how access to formal and informal fishing infrastructure benefits fishermen, their families and communities. These places are important and meaningful in myriad ways beyond just subsistence. They provide healthy food, specifically protein; access to recreation; a free family activity; a way to carry on a family tradition; a way to improve mental health; and a place to bring and meet friends, among many other benefits.

“The reach and benefits of access to formal and informal infrastructure, like the Grayden Paul Drawbridge in Beaufort, are further extended when fishers share their catch with their social networks.

“Our study also found that most fishers were impacted by Hurricane Florence, namely by impacts to fishing sites which limited people’s ability to fish and recreate, and could also have impacted food security for those relying on fish sourced at those sites. These findings are a compelling reason to rationalize repairing and maintaining both formal and informal fishing places, given the array of benefits that access to these locations provide.

“We also found that some common behaviors – an overwhelming tendency to fry their catch, which can seal in toxins; the sharing of catch with children; and a lack of attention paid to toxicity advisories -- could have serious implications in terms of toxicity exposure. This presents an opportunity to better educate the public surrounding the toxicity implications of fish consumption by advertising this information in accessible ways through improved signage at fishing piers and on local news channels, which were cited as the most popular source of accessing information among our respondents.

“We also found that there is a general lack of awareness about the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ) subsistence license waivers, which allow qualifying fishermen to fish without having to pay for a fishing license. This presents an opportunity to increase access to fishermen at these locations that might otherwise fish without a license and could therefore improve state fishery management statistics with a more accurate reflection of who is utilizing these resources. One avenue to better advertise these licenses could be through the Department of Social Services, who could inform their clients about these waivers while informing them about their other programs, like SNAP.”

Did you find that people fishing were aware of and respected regulations that protected certain species?
“Generally, yes. They knew the regulations and referred to them in our interviews, though they did not always agree with them, stating the unfairness in how much commercial fishermen are allowed to take out legally and make money off of.”

Are there local agencies that will be using this info? If so, which and how?
“We hope that the NCDEQ can use our findings to improve their outreach on information regarding toxicity and fishing advisories.

“We also look to the Department of Social Services as a way to introduce subsistence license waivers to those fishing for food in the state, mentioning it along with other programs such as SNAP and food stamps.

“We also hope that our MP acts as a rationale for public expenditure for the creation and maintenance of formal and informal fishing infrastructure, as both have been proven to play a role in feeding the people who fish there.”

For more information on their research project visit the Fishing for Food website.