SMEA Professor awarded NSF Grant to Study Economics of Recreational Fishers

By Spencer Showalter

SMEA professor Dr. Sunny Jardine, a resource and environmental economist, is on a team of researchers who were awarded a $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation last fall. The broad goal of the research funded by the grant is to understand how ecological and social processes shape recreational fisheries at the landscape scale by studying recreational fishing in the Northern Highland Lakes district in Wisconsin.

To get an idea of what Dr. Jardine is studying, it’s important to understand what drew the researchers to the district; recreational fishing is a popular pastime in the area, and it is the recreational activity that draws a range of people to the lakes. Many people see fishing as their path to connection with nature. Unfortunately, recreational fisheries are incredibly difficult to manage and are vulnerable to degradation. The team awarded the grant is seeking to find patterns and lessons in the district that can inform broader recreational fisheries management, by working with lake associations in Wisconsin, as well as the state’s Department of Natural Resources. Dr. Jardine, in particular, is focused on considering solutions that can be realistically implemented given the social and institutional constraints of the area.

She is particularly interested in the complicated relationships among the behavior of recreational fishermen, fish populations, and economic outcomes. “If a fish population is in decline,” she asks, “how long does it take for recreational anglers to respond to that decline? And do individual anglers respond differently in important ways? Some people may just like to get out there [and fish] even if they aren’t catching much. What does that mean for resource sustainability?” She points out that there is no established theory in economic literature than can answer these questions; “I hope to fill that knowledge gap.”

Another topic Dr. Jardine is investigating under the grant is how and when people make investments into common-pool resources. She notes that the economic literature tends to focus on the tragedy of the commons and different solutions to that problem, such as property rights or collective action. However, in the Northern Highland Lakes district, they’re seeing the formation of lake associations, and homeowners stocking fish in the lakes—activities that run counter to the literature’s assessment of how these systems should work. “When should we expect investment in common pool resources? How does the common pool nature of the resource affect investment decisions?”

To address these questions, Dr. Jardine is using bioeconomic models and methods for data analysis. “I want to work on developing the theory here, but I also want to be able to validate any theoretical findings with data.”

The hope for the impacts of the research are two-fold; they’re meant to be useful to recreational fisheries managers in Wisconsin, but Dr. Jardine is also hoping to develop general models that can be used by other researchers asking different questions about recreational fisheries in different settings.