When COVID-19 got tough in Europe, people went fishing

Recreational fishing more than doubled in three European countries during COVID-19 lockdowns, and activity remained higher after the pandemic.

Researchers from Europe and Australia analysed four years of anonymised fishing data (2018 – 2021) from a widely used fish finder device called Deeper Sonar. They considered activity across four countries: Lithuania, Czech Republic, Denmark and Germany.

The results are published in Royal Society Open Science.

In Lithuania, the Czech Republic and Germany angling effort increased 2.2 – 3.8 times during the first lockdown in 2020, above pre-COVID levels. Even after lockdowns ended in mid 2021, fishing effort remained 1.2 – 2.8 times higher than pre-pandemic levels.

In Denmark, fishing increased during the first lockdown, but only by 20%. The analysis shows this was followed by a decrease in fishing during the second lockdown period and later in 2021.

Lead author Dr Asta Audijonyte who was working in Lithuania at the time of the research and now based at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania, says there was anecdotal evidence to suggest that people went fishing more often during lockdowns. Their research is the first to estimate fishing activity at scale – across four years and four countries.

“We expected that it would increase. But we didn’t expect that it would double, or triple, or almost quadruple (in Lithuania).”

“So people started fishing more. Maybe they acquired new gear. They decided they liked it. Recreational fishing still remained higher, even after the pandemic. It wasn’t a short term effect.”

Audijonyte says the 20% increase in Denmark during the first lockdown is corroborated by another study analysing data from a different device, and also consistent with fishing licence sales. Those other sources didn’t show the later decrease.

She says there are two possible reasons for the difference in Denmark compared to the other countries but more research is needed. One possibility is fewer people are using the fish finder device in Denmark. Another possibility is licence sales don’t accurately reflect fishing effort, perhaps people bought a licence but then were too busy to use it. 

There are other limited studies showing increases in other countries including Canada, the United States and Western Australia.

Audijonyte says fishing activity changes likely depend on the strictness of COVID-19 lockdowns in each place.

In many European countries people didn’t need to stay in their houses and could move within their municipalities, allowing for activities like fishing, she says.

The European data also shows a shift in the timing of fishing activity, with more activity taking place during the week compared to the weekend. This effect was mostly seen during the first lockdown.

Recreational fishing is considered important for local economies and a way for society to spend time in nature, Audijonyte says.

“It’s also hugely important for society, probably something that helped us to go through the depressing effects of COVID lockdowns.”

But the rising tide of recreational fishing flowing from the pandemic could have widespread implications, Audijonyte adds.

She says recreational fishing can have a big impact on overall fish stocks. Her previous research involved estimating the recreational catch at a popular fishing location in Lithuania after some fish species failed to recover following a commercial fishing ban in 2013.

Using drones, data from the fish finder device and one thousand surveys they estimated the daily recreational fishing catch. 

“We showed that for those species that didn’t recover, recreational fishing caught five times more than former commercial fishing.”

But while anglers can have a huge ecological impact, there is also an opportunity to hook into their potential as a resource for ecosystem management and environmental stewardship, she says.

“There is a handful of scientists who can do this research, but there’s hundreds of thousands of people who are [fishing]. And if they could report what they catch, we would have exceptional data for all these coastal ecosystems.”

An example of the potential is citizen science project Redmap, which encourages Australians who go fishing, diving or boating to share sightings of any marine species considered uncommon to their area. The data enables Redmap to map changes in the ways Australian marine species are responding to changes in their marine environment, such as ocean warming. 

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The Ultramarine project – focussing on research and innovation in our marine environments – is supported by Minderoo Foundation.

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