Diving into fishing misconceptions

2022 Buck Suzuki Legacy Bursary Winner, Haley Oleynik

Haley Oleynik has a wealth of lived and academic experience exploring the dynamics between fish harvesters’ way of life, and the framework of management that surrounds the industry. Haley worked with fish harvesters during her undergraduate degree in Maine studying the lobster fishery, and as a fishery observer in Alaska. Haley has explored fish population dynamics and fishery management while working towards her Master’s degree in marine science at the University of Delaware researching long-term fish community dynamics in the Delaware Bay, and during her year-long fellowship with the United States government as part of the NMFS National Stock Assessment Program. Today Haley is a PhD student studying BC salmon fisheries at the University of British Columbia. 



Throughout history, fisheries across the globe have built coastal communities, regions, and entire countries. Small fishing fleets that fed villages have evolved into global fishing industries that feed the world. However, while fishing is an important part of human history and modern society, there is a common, public misconception that overfishing is the biggest threat to global oceans. There is no doubt fishing has the potential to harm marine species and ecosystems if unregulated, but in the vast majority of cases, fish populations are impacted by a number of factors in combination, and fishing is highly regulated. While modern day fisheries management does a good job of conserving fish populations, it often doesn’t account for factors other than fishing, further contributing to this misconception. Our oceans are dynamic, complex ecosystems which we must track and manage accordingly. To do this, I believe we need to consider a range of ecosystem impacts, as well as account for and incorporate the lived experiences of fishers who know these resources better than anyone. Fishing is undoubtedly an important part of society, and therefore studying, conserving, and managing our oceans can help to preserve the history, culture, and economy that surrounds fisheries. 


My PhD research at UBC will focus on exploring what external factors influence salmon and steelhead stocks in British Columbia. I’ll build a framework for assessing multiple factors that may contribute to the loss of productivity and marine survival in fish stocks. Salmon and steelhead have long had cultural, social, and economic significance on the coast of B.C. The province has some of the largest salmon runs in the world, but in recent years productivity has dropped, despite reduced effort brought on by management restrictions. As I’ve seen time and time again, people wrongly attribute this drop in productivity to overfishing, when really, conservative management has not rebuilt many of these stocks. B.C. fisheries are dominantly managed with single species stock assessments which do not include information about external ecological conditions. My goal is to explore a number of covariates such as sea surface temperature, pinniped abundance, and salmon farming to try and get at which factor(s) really have the greatest impact on fisheries across coastal B.C. 

Pinniped population increases in B.C. is a good example of the reluctance of fishery management to adapt to changing ecological conditions. Since the inception of marine mammal protections in the mid 1970s, populations of top marine predators like harbour seals and Steller sea lions have increased markedly, reaching historical highs in recent decades. In B.C., research has found that increased pinniped populations have had significant impacts on productivity and marine survival of salmon and steelhead stocks. While the data show these impacts, managers have largely ignored this as a reason for salmon decline and thus public perception stays fixed on overfishing as the main concern. Not only does more pinnipeds mean more fish consumed, they have also proven to be a nuisance to fishers and are reported to interrupt fishing operations and damage gear. However, while it seems anecdotally like these predators cause major problems for fishing, impacts beyond consumption have not been evaluated. My hope is to evaluate alternative hypotheses for fishery declines and to incorporate socioeconomic information by directly surveying fishers about how fishing operations have been impacted with the increase in pinnipeds. The ultimate goal of this project is to objectively evaluate what has happened socially, economically, and ecologically to B.C. salmon and steelhead fisheries over the last several decades.

I am excited about this research because it aims to achieve what I’ve been striving for my whole career: to incorporate the rich at-sea knowledge of fishers and industry members which so often gets left out of the science that informs fishery management. 

I have a deep love of the ocean, and an appreciation for the ecosystems it supports and resources it provides. In order to preserve our ocean environment into the future, it’s crucial as scientists to use all of the tools available to us. People closely tied to the ocean, whether they are fishers or members of coastal communities, have the most to gain from proper ocean conservation. Management cannot be a one-way street. To truly manage ocean resources and ecosystems managers should include the knowledge embedded in coastal communities, First Nations, and fishing industries. I hope that by incorporating information directly from fishers and by including other ecosystem processes in my analysis I can help contribute to holistic fisheries management which will preserve fish populations and support fishing industries into the future. 

Words by Haley Oleynik, July 2022