Falling for fisheries research hook, line, and sinker.

Elizabeth Figus’s doctoral research brings her into close contact with those who fish for a living.

By Emily Harrison Weir

How does a woman raised in land-locked areas of Minnesota and New York become captain of an Alaskan fishing-tending boat? For Elizabeth Figus ’09, the voyage started with a random invitation after her first semester at Mount Holyoke College.

A classmate’s family owned a fishing boat, and she invited Figus aboard to get a glimpse of commercial fishing life. After a few days at sea, she was hooked. 
 
When Figus returned in subsequent summers to work as a deckhand on other boats, her interest deepened in those who fish and in the marine ecosystem crucial to their livelihood. Today, she is a Ph.D. student in the fisheries and ocean sciences program at the University of Alaska.
 
Although she’d arrived at Mount Holyoke contemplating a biological sciences major, Figus was also fascinated by sociology and international relations, her eventual double major. When her attention turned seaward, Mount Holyoke’s liberal arts curriculum made it easy to incorporate all those academic disciplines. She studied abroad in Poland, and used a College fellowship to conduct research about an Alaskan fishing community that became her honors thesis.
 
Taking fishing seriously.
 
To keep enough wild fish on the world’s dinner plates, there must be enough fish in the sea and enough people who can make a living catching them, Figus noted. Keeping human, animal, and environmental needs balanced requires careful fisheries management. 
 
That’s the focus of Figus’s doctoral dissertation, which investigates how one commercial fishing policy—individual quotas—affects both people and the ecosystem. She’s spent years collecting data from two groups, cod fishers in Poland and halibut fishers in Alaska. 
 
One way she’s gotten to know the fishermen is by working alongside them as captain of an 80-foot salmon tender—a boat that transfers to port the fish caught hook and line by small-scale trollers farther out to sea.
 
“I don’t think I would have had the confidence to captain a boat without Mount Holyoke,” Figus says.
 
Who speaks for fish?
 
People who fish for a living have valuable knowledge about the quality and quantity of their area’s fishing grounds, Figus believes. That isn’t always reflected in current approaches to fisheries management.
 
Her Ph.D. work is interdisciplinary and aims to develop tools to help policymakers value both qualitative social sciences information and quantitative data when setting rules governing the fishing industry. This unusual approach garnered a fellowship from the National Science Foundation, an organization that used to focus almost exclusively on projects from the natural sciences.
 
Although hard data is important to Figus’s work, her social sciences training showed her the value of considering fishing from a sociological viewpoint too. Thus, she is spending a good portion of her research days shipping out with commercial fishers and collecting their observations and recommendations for keeping the fish and human populations healthy. 
 
“Without listening the people who do the job, we can’t solve problems and create rules that people are actually going to follow,” says Figus. “We need to use all the resources that we have, and fishermen are a huge source of information that needs to be tapped. Without that, we miss a lot of the story of fishing.”
 
As her research progresses, Figus keeps trolling for more … fish tales.
 
• See a video of Elizabeth Figus discussing her doctoral research. 
 
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