Fishing for insight

Nina Venuti, California Sea Grant Extension Research Assistant

June 5, 2019

Map of three public fishing pier survey sites.For the past year or so, I have been working with my boss, (the amazing) Extension Specialist Theresa Talley, and a team of California Sea Grant interns (Charles Adams, Lupita Barajas, Lupita Sandoval, Kristy Nguyen, and Gizelle Crisostomo) to survey recreational shellfish harvesters on three piers in San Diego Bay. Our survey efforts are part of a larger project to better understand the risks associated with self-harvested San Diego Bay seafood by looking closely at the bay’s food resources and the people who harvest them.

This was the first time I’d ever surveyed members of the public in a systematic way, and it was a huge, somewhat intimidating learning experience for me—one that provoked lots of self-reflection. I’ve come to realize that surveying is, at least for me, an exercise in a kind of emotional intelligence, some mix of perception, self-awareness, courage, and receptivity.

Perception and self-awareness.
While on the piers, I became acutely aware of how I was being received by the individuals I approached for a survey—eagerly, openly, skeptically, guardedly—via their body language, tone of voice, and answers to my questions. In turn, this made me more conscious of how I was presenting myself, my own body language and manner of speaking. While participation in our survey was entirely voluntary—individuals were informed of their ability to refuse to participate, to skip over questions, and to end the survey at any time—the goal was still to get the most accurate, honest, and clear answers (data) from the fishermen who were willing to participate.

And this is where perception and self-awareness came in handy; I employed both to make survey participants more comfortable and build rapport between us. When participants told me of their lack of fishing success, I self-deprecatingly shared stories of our own failure to catch lobster. When they shared fun facts about themselves (that they had caught a mantis shrimp in Mission Bay, that they had a killer lobster bisque recipe), I asked follow up questions. If they were more formal, I addressed them formally; if they were more casual, I followed suit. For the wariest of participants, I left more space between us until they warmed up to me, only then taking a step closer to engage them in conversation. I think, based on my very little experience, that practicing perception and self-awareness helped me not only get a higher survey response rate, but more accurate responses, as participants were more willing to spend time talking with me (and give detailed answers) if they were more comfortable.

It can be quite intimidating and uncomfortable to attempt to strike up conversation with a stranger (let alone ask them to complete a survey), especially for those of us who are on the shyer side. By the time our year of surveying was over, I’d probably talked to about 200 people on piers, and still, each time, I had to steel myself to approach someone new. I acted more confident than I was—a classic “fake it ‘til you make it” approach—explained our project, asked whether they’d be willing to participate, and hoped for the best (and yes, I was rejected once in a while)! All of this became slightly easier over time, but only slightly.

As a surveyor, I was on the pier to listen and learn, to observe, to gain insight into another person’s lived experience. This required an openness to new ideas, a receptivity, even a humility of sorts. My own opinions and experiences didn’t really matter in this context—my job was to try to understand theirs.

Though it was revealed to me through surveying strangers on piers, I think that this lesson of practicing being perceptive, self-aware, receptive, and even a little courageous, is one that can be applied to most situations in which we interact with people, especially people who may be from walks of life different than our own.

All of the fishermen I surveyed over the last year let me into a little part of their lives, allowing me to peek into the world of recreational pier fishing, a world formerly unknown to me. And for that, I am grateful. Below are some notes from the field over the last year, so you can peek in too:

Fri, June 29, 2018, 11:50 am-1:15 pm – Embarcadero – A fisherman shares his recipe for homemade salted squid (essentially squid jerky), which he uses for bait, with us. Another tells us that they frequently see swimming crabs under the pier at Embarcadero; the crabs swim near the surface at night.

Thurs, July 12, 2018, 2:18-3:25 pm – Pepper Park – Chatted with all parties on the pier, no one targets shellfish. One pair was using mussels from a local market as bait. Mackerel being caught like crazy (very easily).

Sat, Sept 29, 2018, 6:30-8:55 pm – Shelter Island – Opening night of lobster season. Nine total surveys conducted – every hoopnetter on the pier surveyed throughout the night. Of nine, four were first-timers. Max hoopnets (8-9 parties each with 1-2 nets) just past sunset (6:45 or 7:00 pm).

Weds, Oct 17, 2018, 6:15-8:30 pm – Shelter Island – Tide was very high around 6:00 pm, went out as we were on pier. Slow night - hardly anyone hoopnetting; only one hoopnetter came the whole time we were there. A lot of folks packing up by 8:30 pm.

Weds, Dec 12, 2018, 5:30-7:20 pm – Pepper Park – Lots of skunks and stray cats along top of rip rap.

Fri, Feb 15, 2019, 7:32-8:13 pm – Embarcadero – Has been raining off and on the last few days. Pier very quiet, likely due to rain/weather. Encountered only four rod and reel fishermen this evening.

Sat, Apr 27, 2019, 3:35-4:16 pm – Shelter Island – Lots of families and groups of friends with their kids out today. Talked to a fisherman who said he often takes his friends/coworkers and their kids fishing on the pier so that everyone can experience catching a fish without having to pay for a license.

Sun, Apr 28, 2019, 8:16-8:45 am – Embarcadero – A “regular” tells us that someone caught a spider crab off Embarcadero a few weeks ago. Number of fishing parties is hard to determine today – lots of folks are chatting amongst each other/moving between parties.