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CEREO Newsroom CEREO Newsroom Finding Patterns in Fish Behavior

Finding Patterns in Fish Behavior

Team | Project Year: 2015

Scientist: Alli Cramer, School of the Environment (Pullman)
Reporter: Linda Prado, Murrow College of Communication (Pullman)

Project Overview

Overfishing is a primary cause of decreasing fish populations, and has important consequences for species that rely on fish for food, including humans.

Although management and conservation practices can be used to prevent or mitigate fish population declines, fisheries managers need information about the location and movement patterns of fish to identify and implement effective management actions.

Public Concern and the Purpose of Marine Protected Areas


Mark Plunkett, Conservation Manager at the Seattle Aquarium, notes the public interest in protecting marine life.

Ask any person on the streets of Seattle if fish conservation is important and you’re likely to get a resounding “yes” for an answer.

People generally understand the implications of overharvesting fish and other marine life, as well as the importance of reversing the loss of these marine populations.

In fact, in 2004 the first push for marine protected areas (MPAs) to be established in the Puget Sound was made by concerned citizens who recognized the diminished abundance of marine life on beaches. MPAs—sectioned-off parts of the ocean where human activities such as boating or fishing are regulated—were established, and there have been indications of improved abundance of marine life within these regions.

While MPAs have proven to be effective in some ways, there is still room for improvement. That’s where research conducted at Washington State University aims to help.

Understanding Fish Movements

Marine protected areas are not just used to aid general marine life in an area. Fish conservation managers also use them to protect specific species of fish in order to improve their population status. However, not knowing if targeted fish stay within the protection boundaries is a significant issue many managers face when using MPAs. To combat this problem, managers and researchers use fish tracking techniques, such as acoustic telemetry, to try to get a picture of where these fish go.

WSU PhD student Alli Cramer takes this one step further with her research by creating improved models that would effectively predict the movement patterns of fish through the combination of bioinformatics and acoustic telemetry. In doing so, she hopes to understand where fish are most likely to be, which can help managers anticipate how effective some management actions, such as the use of marine protected areas.

Acoustic Telemetry

One of the most popular spatial management techniques in fish tracking is acoustic telemetry. For this technique to work, fish must be tagged with trackers that emit a specific “ping” to identify the tagged fish. Acoustic receivers are planted around areas in the ocean that researchers want to observe. When tagged fish swim near these areas, the receiver picks up and records the pings released by the tags. This technology allows researchers to see where the fish are, what depth they are at, and the time at which the ping was recorded. Once the receivers have been in the water long enough, the researchers retrieve them and extract their data.

This data is what helps create a general picture of where specific species of fish go, based on an accumulation of data from those tagged individual fish.

Current Findings and Implications

Cramer’s research involves the data mining of several different studies that use acoustic telemetry on various fish from around the world. So far, Cramer has been able to finish the initial stages of data analysis and has already determined some patterns, one of which identifies that all species of fish tend to spend more time around their “homes” (or, places of origin) than scientists have previously expected. She is currently looking into this discovery in more detail. Though her current preliminary findings are too broad to be applied to a specific fishery, fisheries managers and conservation groups will eventually be able to take Cramer’s more detailed findings into consideration.

Once Cramer collects enough data to illuminate patterns in fish movement, she will be able to form models that will help anticipate fish locations. These models could make fish management and conservation efforts much more effective. This can prove to be especially helpful as more managers are looking to marine protected areas as a management technique. Being able to predict fish movement and behavior will not only allow these managers to better understand the rules behind fish movement, but also understand where future management areas should be placed for greater impact.

Cramer’s research is slated to last until 2019-2020, the duration of her PhD pursuit. Once she finds answers to her current research question, she plans to explore other questions and improve her models. “At my time at Washington State, I believe I have enough time to ask enough questions,” Cramer said, “but hopefully I’ll end up having so many more questions based on what I found that I can continue the research into my professional life.”