Scientist Spotlight: Abby Lynch, Inland Fish, and More Accurate Valuations of Global Inland Fisheries
When most people think of fish, an image from the ocean probably springs to mind. However, important fisheries are found not only in marine waters, but also in the world’s rivers, lakes, and other land-locked water bodies. For Abby Lynch, a Research Fish Biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Climate Adaptation Science Center (CASC), part of her job involves trying to bring to light the importance of these frequently undervalued and overlooked resources. Lynch’s work focuses on inland fish and fisheries, which are often excluded from policy and natural resource decision-making, despite the important services they provide to ecological and human communities.
“Inland fisheries provide food for billions and livelihoods for millions of people worldwide,” says Lynch. “Yet, many people don’t recognize this importance or the many other services that inland fish provide.”
Establishing a Baseline
As a result, inland fish and fisheries often don’t have a seat at the table for important water resource decisions. When water is allocated for agriculture, hydropower, or municipal use, fish can be left with, well, whatever is left. Sometimes, aquatic habitat becomes limiting, which impacts the fish and the services they provide, such as food, livelihoods, and recreation.
Lynch’s research is particularly critical now as inland fish may be facing additional pressures resulting from shifts in regional environments and climates. The scientific community currently lacks a baseline assessment for inland fisheries on a global scale, which is necessary to examine how inland fisheries may change, improve, or deteriorate as the climate changes. Lynch’s research portfolio seeks to address this knowledge gap to help integrate inland fish into decision-making and help fisheries managers better monitor these resources under a changing climate.
“Since we have no baseline for many inland fisheries, we could be losing important aspects of this resource to climate change without knowing what we had to begin with,” says Lynch. “That’s why the National CASC and I decided it’s important for us to play a role in this space.”
Many of her projects involve compiling and synthesizing large datasets (e.g., CreelCat and FiCli) to assess the current status (e.g., inland fisheries threats assessment) and value of these important resources (e.g., compared to marine fisheries and in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals). Ultimately, the aim of Lynch’s work and that of the broader CASC fish team is to better understand global change impacts to these important resources and help stakeholders strategically conserve and adapt to changing conditions.
Fascinated by Fish
Lynch may have swam like a fish as a child growing up in Falls Church, Virginia, but she never considered fisheries conservation and research as a career path until going to college. As an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, she dual majored in English and Biology and a study abroad program in the Bahamas sparked her career trajectory. Lynch pursued Marine Science in graduate school at The Virginia Institute of Marine Science, College of William & Mary and developed a passion for fisheries management there when she learned how valuable fish are to so many.
After receiving her master’s degree, Lynch was awarded the prestigious John A. Knauss Sea Grant Fellowship for marine policy through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. As a Knauss Fellow, Lynch collaborated on the National Fish Habitat Action Plan (NFHAP), through which she met current National CASC Chief Doug Beard in 2008. This experience led her from Virginia to Michigan State University for a Ph.D. in Fisheries and Wildlife and Ecology, Evolutionary Biology, and Behavior, with Beard serving on her doctoral advising committee.
During this time, Lynch staffed the Climate Change Task Force of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. There, she had her first hands-on experience with integrating climate change into natural resource management. She drew on that foundation to develop her dissertation research in projected climate impacts on recruitment for lake whitefish, a commercially important fishery in the Great Lakes. Lynch’s experience with climate change impacts on inland fisheries, her passion for fisheries management, and her work with Beard eventually paved the way to a position as a Research Fish Biologist at the National CASC in 2014. She says her work for the CASC network has offered her opportunities to study the impacts of climate and other stressors on fish and aquatic systems to inform conservation, adaptation, and sustainable use regionally, nationally, and globally.
“I’m interested in the strong social and ecological linkages that inland fisheries comprise,” says Lynch. “This resource reaches so many different types of people because of all the diverse types of services they provide. Inland fisheries are also very important to a lot of underserved communities and devoting my research to managing and conserving this resource is something I’m passionate about doing.”
Lynch’s recent work at the National CASC has given her the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues, including Beard, on improving our understanding of basic estimates of inland fishery harvests. One of their recent publications assessed commercial inland fisheries in the United States. The resulting data show that there are numerous inconsistencies across the country in terms of how commercial harvests in inland waters are documented. This demonstrates the need for larger-scale information on how many fish are caught each year in commercial harvests, and how these fish are used. Furthermore, a second project focused on developing a method for estimating statewide recreational lake harvest by using data from Wisconsin as a case study. The results of this research show that recreational fisheries contribute substantially to fish consumption statewide.
“Both commercial and recreational inland fisheries are undervalued, globally. These resources are often invisible on a national, let alone international, scale,” explains Lynch. “Without these numbers, it’s easy to dismiss inland fisheries as having no contribution when making decisions about future sustainability of environmental systems and resources.”
Beyond establishing accurate valuations, attempting to develop adaptation plans for fisheries conservation in a changing climate is addled with challenges. For instance, commercial and recreational fisheries are often managed based on a variety of factors, including fishery size, fish size, type of gear, time restraints, or harvest quotas. Furthermore, studies on the impacts of climate change on common fisheries species around the world are inconsistently showing both positive and negative impacts, further necessitating the establishment of baseline information about the value of global inland fisheries. Lynch is working on several projects aimed at rectifying these types of issues. One is the National CASC-funded Fish and Climate Change (FiCli) database, which first began as a workshop hosted in 2016 by Lynch and her colleagues who were interested in synthesizing all known effects of climate change on inland fish.
“We decided we needed to present all these documented impacts in a way that was more accessible to stakeholders with related questions about climate change in their regions,” says Lynch. “We saw the potential for this larger database which could synthesize the impacts of climate change to inland fish around the world.”
The goal of this database, which continues to get updated as new information becomes available, is to serve as a publicly accessible resource to help users easily access information documenting climate change impacts on inland fish, globally. The information presented in FiCli also includes management recommendations made in scientific papers. Lynch believes that FiCli will soon be able to assist with questions about the impacts of climate change on inland fish and fisheries by examining where the positive or negative effects occur geographically, across species, or by habitat.
“The database essentially synthesizes the current state of climate change impacts to fish and makes management of resources accessible to users on a global scale,” says Lynch, but she acknowledges some limitations with the database. “Right now, we know of many documented negative consequences for cold-water fish, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there are no negative effects in tropical systems. It just means our database currently lacks the literature to demonstrate them.”
The Broader Inland Fisheries Community
Lynch is also helping to further advance the science surrounding fisheries resources. She, along with Beard and others, cofounded InFish, a global professional network of volunteers interested in conservation and management of inland fish and fisheries. Lynch serves as network coordinator, meaning she facilitates monthly calls with InFish team members, compiles information relevant to the network, and serves as a liaison between people who have questions and those who can help answer them.
“People with specific inland fish questions or issues can ask the network, and then InFish as a group can help advance these questions or issues on a global stage,” she says. It leads to more collaboration and better outcomes for inland fish. “For example, a student studying the impacts of fish consumption in southeast Asia was able to harness the network to engage experts on the specific topic of his research.”
“Since joining the CASC network, I’ve been able to cultivate a network of inland fisheries colleagues and incorporate their expertise into CASC research, linking our communities together,” says Lynch. “I am so excited to be able to contribute to improving our ability to sustainably manage inland fish and their associated fisheries as the climate changes. I enjoy being able to help this often invisible resource garner greater prominence and appropriate representation in decision making spaces.
Abby Lynch received her bachelor’s degrees in both Biology and English from the University of Virginia in 2005. She then received her master’s degree in Marine Science from The Virginia Institute of Marine Science, College of William & Mary in 2008, after which she was awarded the John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service which gave her the opportunity to work on the National Fish Habitat Action Plan (NFHAP). She earned her Ph.D. in 2013 from Michigan State University, again having dual-majored in Fisheries and Wildlife, and Ecology, Evolutionary Biology, and Behavior. While pursuing her doctorate, Lynch became the Graduate Climate Assistant to the Director of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the Environment. She has held her position as National Climate Adaptation Science Center Research Fish Biologist since 2014.
Check out some of her adventures below!
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