Leandro Castello, assistant professor of fisheries in Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment, has been awarded a marine conservation fellowship by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Castello will use the fellowship, which supports research to improve ocean conservation and management, to determine the best way to generate catch rate data for tropical fish.

Roughly one-third of the global fish yield comes from the tropics; however, lack of data on the abundance of target stock makes managing tropical fisheries difficult. Consequently, tropical fisheries are less sustainable than fisheries elsewhere.

An affordable piece of information that could potentially be used in the management of tropical fisheries is catch rate data obtained directly from local fishers.

“If 20 years ago, fishers were routinely catching 20 kilograms of fish per day, and over time those catch rates declined, then it’s implied that the amount of fish available has also declined,” Castello said. “It’s not always that straightforward, but this type of information can make a difference in places where there is no information whatsoever.”

Castello hopes to engage local fishers in Brazil and use their expertise to develop a handbook of practical guidelines for gathering their own catch rate data and applying it in fisheries management.

“Brazil is my home country, and its fisheries are in urgent need of scientific development that can readily foster proper management,” he said.

Castello will begin by interviewing fishers about their memories of past fishing events. Their responses will then be compared with government data about the same events, allowing Castello and his team to determine the reliability of the fishers’ memories.

According to Castello, including the fishers in his research is vital.

“Fishers are a principal element of a fishery, just like the fish they harvest. Without their buy-in, our management recommendations are unlikely to succeed,” he said.

Castello, who is also affiliated with Virginia Tech’s Global Change Center, housed in the Fralin Life Science Institute, has conducted several research projects in the Amazon. In one study, he worked with Amazonian fishers to develop a method of visually counting an unusual species of fish that has to surface the water to breathe air. This cost-effective method allowed fishers to keep track of fish populations and determine fishing quotas accordingly.

The Pew Fellows Program in Marine Conservation has recognized 156 experts around the world since it was established in 1996. Each Fellow receives a grant to complete a three-year research project based on marine conservation. In addition to Castello’s work, other 2017 projects include a study on mass coral mortality due to rising ocean temperatures, an exploration of the effects of climate change on polar bear populations, and a look at African manatee populations.

The program’s goal is to engage marine scientists and other experts in solving issues affecting the world’s oceans. Project proposals are chosen based on their potential to protect ocean environments.

Castello, who began his career studying oceanography, is excited to return to his roots with the Pew fellowship.

“In addition to the challenge involved in the research, I am curious to re-engage in conservation research in coastal fisheries,” he said. “My background is in oceanography, but I ended up mostly working in the Amazon.”

Castello earned a bachelor’s in oceanography from Fundação Universidade do Rio Grande in Brazil, a master’s in public administration and environmental policy from Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, and a doctorate in conservation biology from the State University of New York.

Castello’s project co-investigators include Michael Sorice, assistant professor of outdoor recreation and human dimensions in Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment; Priscila Lopes, associate professor of ecology at the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Norte in Brazil; and Luis Lima, senior director of the Brazil Program of Rare, an organization dedicated to helping communities take a leadership role in local conservation.

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