Researchers examine pandemic-driven changes in fishery use on Hawai‘i Island

A study of pandemic-driven changes in non-commercial fishing in Hawai‘i led to discovering catch photos posted to social media quickly and accurately captured changes in fishing habits: people were fishing more during the COVID-19 lockdown, and they started targeting different species. 

Timothy Grabowski holding a fish
Tim Grabowski

By Susan Enright.

A group of researchers from different fields at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo and colleagues from out-of-state examined pandemic-driven changes in nearshore non-commercial use of fisheries on Hawai‘i Island. While learning about new fishing habits during the pandemic and how those changes were impacting local fisheries, the researchers also confirmed something interesting about data collection in the age of social media. Catch photos posted to Instagram told a story fast and accurately about changes in fishing behavior, much faster in fact than conventional approaches to data collection: people were fishing more during the COVID-19 lockdown, and they started targeting different species than their normal catch.

Lead author of the study is Tim Grabowski, unit leader at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawai‘i Cooperative Fishery Research Unit in Hilo and an adjunct associate professor of marine science at UH Hilo.

Michelle Shuey pictured
Michelle Shuey

Co-authors are Michelle Shuey, an instructor of geography and environmental science at UH Hilo; Andrew Curley, an alumnus from UH Hilo with a degree in anthropology; Michelle Benedum, a political scientist and doctoral candidate from University of Colorado at Boulder; and Cole Dill-De Sa, an undergraduate student at Stanford University’s earth systems program. Curley and Dill-De Sa were able to participate in this study through UH Hilo’s Pacific Internship Programs for Exploring Science program, commonly called PIPES.

The study, entitled “Pandemic-driven changes in the nearshore non-commercial fishery in Hawai‘i: catch photos posted to social media capture changes in fisher behavior,” was published March 28, 2023, in the journal PeerJ.

“This project illustrates the importance of nearshore fisheries to the people of Hawai‘i Island as a source of both sustenance and recreation during a time of hardship, uncertainty, and stress,” says Grabowski. “Not only were people fishing more during the COVID-19 lockdown, but they started targeting different species. From a management perspective, understanding how fishers change their behavior during hard times will allow better planning to ensure these resources are available to people when they are needed most.”

In the paper, the authors say there are three main takeaways from the study. During the pandemic: (1) resource users (meaning people fishing) posted to social media nearly three times as often with nearly double the number of fishes pictured per post; (2) individuals who fished for subsistence were more likely to increase the amount of time spent fishing and relied more on their catch for food security; and (3) individuals fishing exclusively for subsistence were more likely to fish for different species.

The researchers also collected oral histories directly from fishers, a conventional way to collect data that takes some time, and information gleaned from those interviews validated the social media findings, suggesting that social media can be used to rapidly collect data and predict changes in nearshore fisheries due to large-scale disturbances. “We later confirm our social media findings and obtain a more complete understanding of the changes in nearshore non-commercial fisheries in Hawai’i through a more conventional approach—speaking directly with fishers,” write the authors.

Grabowski says the study illustrates the value of using multiple approaches to evaluate changes in a fishery. “Our analysis of photos posted to social media allowed us to quickly and efficiently detect many of the changes that occurred in the fishery that were only apparent after spending much more time and effort talking story with local fishers around Hilo Bay.”

The researchers emphasize the importance of this speed in data collecting: As climate change threatens additional disturbances, it will be necessary for resource managers to collect reliable data quickly to prevent unsustainable fishing pressures and to better target management plans.

“Climate change is only likely to increase the frequency and severity of acute social disruptions, like the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Grabowski. “Therefore, understanding how fishers respond to these disruptions is critical to ensuring that resource management can be responsive and adaptive to changing use patterns.”

Hawai‘i Island fishery as snapshot of worldwide disruption

The authors write that in the absence of comprehensive monitoring data, the use of all available data to identify trends in non-commercial fisheries is critical to enable resource managers to make informed decisions, particularly during times when conditions may be in flux. They say social media offers the opportunity to characterize people’s fishing behavior and gather a broad range of information in a timely and cost-effective manner. In fact, data mining social media sites has already proven to be a reliable and accurate source of species information, seasonal efforts, distribution efforts, and basic life history data from the over 70 applications already in use in non-commercial fisheries worldwide.

The global COVID-19 pandemic presented a very good example of a large-scale disruption that impacted fisheries globally. Large-scale economic disruptions, rampant unemployment, closures and lockdowns became the new normal. The authors of the paper write that these hardships may have added to increased levels of fishing activity in order for people to have food security. Also, recreational use may have increased because people had more time to spend on the water.

But there is little direct evidence to determine how non-commercial fisheries may be responding to the broader impacts of the pandemic. Data on non-commercial fisheries are often sparse without strict reporting requirements, especially in Hawai‘i where local fishers are not required to purchase fishing permits.

Given this context, the authors say Hawai‘i is an ideal case study on the effects of COVID-19 on nearshore fisheries. Data for the nearshore non-commercial fishery in Hawai‘i are scarce, but the researchers found anecdotal reports suggesting nearshore environments were under increased fishing pressure since the start of the pandemic. This is a red flag because the nearshore non-commercial fishery in Hawai‘i is critical as both a source of food security and recreation for a large proportion of state residents. “Anywhere from 84,000–261,000 residents participate in the fishery any given year, which makes it considerably larger than the commercial fisheries operating around the Hawaiian Islands,” write the authors of the study.

So, all the conditions were underway for an increase in non-commercial fishing: lockdowns, layoffs, above national averages in unemployment rates, restrictions of other activities. Given this, the authors caution, “without adequate data there is a genuine risk that management actions could fail to meet the needs of constituents or miss critical changes in catch or effort that could adversely impact the sustainability of the fishery.”

Collecting the data

The researchers objective was to quantify changes in the nearshore non-commercial fishery around Hawai‘i Island by mining social media data and collecting oral histories from fishers.

They restricted their examination to publicly available Instagram posts containing images of captured fishes that were georeferenced to Hawai‘i Island and posted between January 2016 and July 2021. They evaluated, for example, whether there were differences in the species composition of the fishes, grouped as pelagic (open sea), coastal pelagic, and reef fishes, in photos posted pre-pandemic or during the pandemic.

The social media findings were then confirmed through in-person interviews. A total of 69 people who were fishing non-commercially in Hilo Bay agreed to share their experiences about how their fishing behavior was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns that started in Hawai‘i in March 2020.

Aerial of Hilo Bay
The researchers focused their survey of social media posts on those geotagged to Hawai’i Island. However, due to COVID-related restrictions, the one-on-one interactions with fishers were restricted to the shoreline and boat ramp around Hilo Bay on the east side of Hawai’i Island and surrounded by the city of Hilo, the largest urban area on the island with a population over 45,000. Photo of Hilo Bay by Hollyn Johnson for UH Hilo.

Combined, the oral histories and catch photos posted to social media suggest substantial shifts in the motivation of individuals participating in the nearshore fishery Hawai‘i during the initial year of the COVID-19 pandemic. A substantial proportion of individuals who identified as fishing primarily or partially for subsistence indicated an increased reliance upon their catch for food security during the pandemic.

Further, the researchers discovered that people were fishing for different kinds of fish species during the pandemic than they normally sought. The researchers found this particular point concerning, writing that “the combination of increased effort and a potential shift of fishing effort to coastal pelagic and reef species is likely to have severe implications to their sustainability, as the reliance of Hawai‘i residents on nearshore fisheries already places a heavy strain on nearshore ecosystems under normal conditions.”

How to keep an eye on trends

The overall results of the study suggest that mixed recreational and subsistence fisheries require management that focuses on ensuring resiliency to guarantee that the resource can sustain periods of elevated use that might follow socio-economic disruptions. This point raises a red flag for the researchers because the disruptions on the scale of the global COVID-19 pandemic are predicted to increase in frequency in response to changing climatic conditions.

Rising costs of traditional data collection methods are already hindering resource managers in collecting data, and this is especially evident when managers need to quickly adapt to unexpected changes in fishing habits due to some sort of social or economic upheaval. The authors of this new study say this limitation presents an opportunity for researchers and managers to find new sources of data, like social media, that can quickly provide reliable information.

The authors note that like all fisheries data, data collected from social media possesses biases. However, they argue, social media and online angler apps have been demonstrated to produce accurate, repeatable, and cost-effective fisheries data. And their study proved this out.

“Our results indicate that social media and traditional data collection methods showed similar trends in the non-commercial nearshore fishery in Hawai‘i,” the researchers conclude, positing that “developing sampling protocols that allow data mining of publicly available data of fishers’ behavior may offer a complementary approach to monitoring fisheries that could allow for more rapid detection and response to changes driven by large-scale disruption given the time and resource intensive nature of more traditional monitoring methods.”

Story by Susan Enright, a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.

Share this story