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#Bayareafishing: Social media reveals behaviors of Central Californian recreational fishers

My name is Maryam Krauss, and I am currently a senior at Iowa State University majoring in animal ecology with a focus on fisheries and aquatic science. This past summer, I was given the amazing opportunity of interning with Timothy Frawley, Larry Crowder, and Rachel Seary at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station as an NSF Research Experience for Undergraduate (REU) intern. My independent research for the REU program was a subset study of the Ocean Access and MPAs project where I observed the changes in fishing activities and practices in the San Francisco Bay Area using social media data, specifically Instagram. I was tasked with learning and using R programming, and collecting qualitative data from Instagram posts under the hashtag, #bayareafishing, ranging from years 2014-2022.

While recreational fisheries monitoring and data collection efforts organized by state and federal agencies are often limited by the number of agents deployed in the field and the sites which they visit, social media represents an a potentially valuable alternative source with increased scope and breadth. In our analysis of regional Instagram posts, we collected and analyzed different fished species. This was done via two ways which were: 1) manual identification, in which I manually reviewed 1,000 randomly selected posts from the ~16,500 which comprised our data set and determined the species present using a photo identification key, and 2) quantified species mentioned using different text-strings, such as names and aliases of different species, in captions or hashtags under each post. From this analysis, we produced data visualizations that demonstrated the number of users throughout the years, how often species were mentioned in a year, the percentage of species posted, and a 1:1 trend line showing the relationship between the number of times species were manually identified in the 1000-post sample vs. the number of posts in which the species were mentioned in post captions and/or hashtags.

Figure. Bar charts describing the seasonal distribution of primary marine species mentioned in text-strings in the #BayAreaFishing database. Illustration Credit: Audrey Sauble.

Based on the plotted graphs from this dataset, we saw an increase in the number of users during 2020, a La Niña phase (where there was a decrease in ocean temperatures) which corresponded with the COVID-19 pandemic. The commonly mentioned species were halibut, salmon, sturgeon, and striped bass that varied throughout different seasons. However, the most commonly posted species (as determined by manual photograph IDs) were striped bass, halibut, salmon, and different freshwater species. Despite this slight difference in species composition mentioned vs. posted, our trend line showed a significant correlation between the number of times species were manually identified in the 1000-post sample vs. the number of posts in which they were mentioned. This suggests that social media can potentially act as an alternative tool for future marine monitoring, especially during events that delay or tamper with traditional marine monitoring such as COVID-19, or in regions and/or habitats that monitoring agents don’t access frequently.

However, there were multiple things I had to consider when analyzing the data that I was given. First, despite social media being a good alternative to data collection that promotes inclusivity of underrepresented recreational or subsistence fishing communities, social media is not necessarily an accessible and readily-available platform to everyone. Not only does it require access to technology (which requires money), creating a presence on social media is a very time-consuming effort. It turns a blind eye on equally important underrepresented fishing communities that are not able to access social media such as those with limited time, finances, and those living in rural or isolated areas that practice subsistence fishing for resources.

Second, I also noticed discrepancies in data due to the flexibility in social media posting. If you have used social media before, you would know there is often a gray-area in accuracy of posts in general. For instance, captions and hashtags under a caption does not necessarily indicate the media being posted. There were a good number of posters in the dataset who mentioned a species in their hashtags, even when the species was nowhere to be found in the post. I also found overlaps in text-strings with certain species that exist in both freshwater and saltwater such as bass and salmon. Since our data is emphasized on marine fishing, we had to find ways to filter out freshwater from saltwater species.

When I was first introduced to the project and my given tasks, I was very curious (and truthfully pretty skeptical) as to how and why Instagram can be beneficial for research. Coming from a person who uses Instagram on a daily basis and seeing how people operate on social media, never in a million years would I have thought Instagram to be a reliable tool in conducting research. I was also quite out-of-touch with the fishing community; and for some reason, I never thought they posted their catches as much as they did (which was also an interesting discovery on my end). Being a part of this project, I loved seeing how new information was brought to us through simultaneous efforts in social-media data collection and community-engagement done by other interns. Through connections established via social media, we were able to reach out to those within local fishing communities that were willing to share their voices and opinions.

Overall, being a part of the Ocean Access and MPAs team for the summer was a great learning experience filled with surprises. At the beginning of the summer, I was initially overwhelmed by the thought of trying to fulfill the expectations and deadlines for both the REU program and the Ocean Access and MPAs project. Luckily, I was extremely blessed to be supported by an amazing group of people who were always readily available to help me whenever I hit a stumbling block, despite their own busy schedules. Meeting a great group of people who are not only passionate about what they do, but who are also genuine in helping others made me fall in love with the research community, and strengthened my interest in pursuing graduate school.

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