Study authors (who gave permission for their images to be used) speaking to fishers at landing sites. Image courtesy of Claire Collins.

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Our ocean is increasingly under pressure from fishing fleets globally. Understanding where fishing fleets fish and how fishers make decisions on where to fish is key to managing this pressure. Often, specific social drivers for fishers’ decisions are not identified at the fleet level. This may lead to management that has negative outcomes for both fishers and protection of the ocean. Our research mapped fishing of Sri Lankas’ multi-day fishing fleet, which operates medium-sized vessels (9 to 17 metres) and fishes both within national waters and high seas areas. We show their broad geographic range and occasional illegal incursions into other countries’ waters. We conducted interviews and a mapping activity with fishers landing to two sites on the south west coasts of Sri Lanka.

We used a paper map to ask fishers where they had fished over the last five years and how important each fishing area was in terms of overall catch volume and annual earnings. We also asked questions about how they decided where to fish and how this has changed in recent times.

We identified that distance from landing site and environmental factors such as sea surface temperature may be important in guiding fishing decisions. During conversations, fishers also reported that some will fish illegally in other countries waters, especially if they are targeting sharks and want to earn a higher income.

Our study highlights that collecting data directly from fishers can increase our understanding of where fishing effort is distributed. Furthermore, it can identify important social drivers for behaviours that, when combined with data about the environment, could help us to better manage fishing fleet movements. We suggest that using informal approaches to discuss sensitive issues can help identify illegal fishing activity, which may threaten the ability of protected areas to conserve vulnerable marine species or habitats. By incorporating data from fishers can also help identify factors that are important when fishers make decisions about where to fish.  Our recommendations are that advanced technologies to track fishers, including satellites, are combined with understanding gained from speaking with fishers directly to manage fisheries.

Shark catch. Image courtesy of Claire Collins.