My research aims to understand pattern and process in exploited ecosystems. The aim of this research is to inform and guide sustainable management of some of Earth’s important natural resources, like fisheries. This research is inherently interdisciplinary successful management depends on understanding the political, governance, social, and economic processes of the “social system” and the biological, geographical, climate, and ecological processes of the “ecological system”. Without integrating social and ecological knowledge, we may miss much of what drives the whole ecosystem.

Life-history variation in exploited fishes

growth and size and age at maturity small
Lake trout life-history variation in traits like growth, maturity, and reproduction.

Fish life-history traits like growth, reproduction, maturation, and survival influence individual fitness and the size- and age-structure of fish populations. The response of these traits to variable environments may ultimately determine species resilience to ecosystem changes, like exploitation and climate change. I’ve used theoretical and empirical case studies to understand several of these aspects in a variety of exploited fishes including:

  • Lake trout life-history variation tracking climate, productivity, fish community, and exploitation clines (see Wilson et al. 2019 J. Anim. Ecol.)
  • Black crappie growth in response to density-dependent and-independent variation (see Wilson et al. 2015 NAJFM and Matthias et al. 2018 Fish. Res)
  • Fish recruitment dynamics emerging from density- and size-dependent growth and survival (upcoming article with Post et al.)

Landscape ecology of spatially structured fisheries

Landscape-scale patterns in macroeconomics, spatial networks, watersheds, and productivity gradients influence the coupled feedbacks between fish and fishers (Carruthers et al. 2019). Understanding how these broad-scale processes influence patterns in overfishing can help managers to grasp where on the landscape merits conservation actions. I’ve studied this using both theory and case studies in western Canada’s lake trout and rainbow trout fisheries (Wilson et al. 2020).

Coupled feedbacks between people and nature

The diversity in people’s interactions with natural resources is an often overlooked aspect in applied ecology (Ward et al. 2016). In many respects, there can be as much diversity in people’s behaviours and preferences as that found in nature. For example, the primary users of the lake trout fishery, recreational anglers, change their behavior if they’re on a daytrip or an overnight trip – people on an overnight trip are willing to go much further for better lake trout fishing. As up to ~40% of fishing effort comes from anglers on overnight trips, understanding the heterogeneity in fisher preferences is an important component towards developing sustainable management policies (Wilson et al. 2020).

Angler preferences for harvesting big fish near their homes can structure whole ecosystems

Here more about this research on CBC Yukon.

Navigating tradeoffs in fishery management

Balancing the needs of people with the conservation of fish populations is at the core of successful fishery management. My research aims to link our understanding of both social and ecological processes into an integrated system to then assess robust and sustainable policies.

Conservation hotspots (circles) across British Columbia lake trout are typically near larger populations of anglers (green triangles).

In collaboration with BC FLNRO (Joe De Gisi) and Environment Yukon (Oliver Barker), I helped tackle some of these challenges in the lake trout fishery of BC and Yukon. My colleague, Anne Farineau, developed a regional road network linking all censused towns and municipalities to all freshwaters with plausible lake trout occurrence. I then integrated the bioeconomic behaviour of lake trout anglers (from above) with the life-history variation in lake trout populations (also from above) to conduct a policy analysis on which regulations may improve social or conservation metrics. In general, we found extensive tradeoffs in these objectives that varied from region to region or town to town – for example, policies that reduced the risk of collapse in one region may have increased the risk of collapse in another or come at a tradeoff with reduced harvest. Overall, we found that a more conservative policy of reduced bag limits and increased protected slots tended to balance angler well-being and the risk of overfishing.

Improving assessment and monitoring designs

Another core aspect of my research is to use and develop novel methods, from gear deployments to quantitative techniques, that improve fishery assessments and monitoring. One of the components I’ve done the most work on this frontier is in estimates of fish growth and maturity resulting from polyphasic life histories and size selective sampling (Wilson et al. 2015; Wilson et al. 2018; Hashiguti et al. In Press). I’ve used simulations to inform study designs for estimating fish mortality (Rogers et al. 2014). Lastly, I developed one of the first uses of underwater video to assess freshwater fish communities in dense macrophytes (Wilson et al. 2014; Wilson et al. 2015).

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