Talking Fish

Talking Fish

November 5, 2010
Using 3-D visualization, visitors to the lab can

Using 3-D visualization, visitors to the lab can navigate various underwater environments and witness how their decisions will affect relevant fish species and populations.
Sherman Lai

When the Atlantic cod fishery was closed in 1992, politicians and fishermen assumed the stock would recover and the bounty of fish would return to Newfoundland within a decade. But almost 20 years later, cod stocks remain low, and scientists are still trying to determine exactly why.

The cod saga is one of many examples that show how the science of ecosystem modelling continues to improve while the actual management of species continues to fall short. Villy Christensen, a fisheries biologist at the Fisheries Centre of the University of British Columbia (UBC), wanted to find out why there has been such a disconnect, so he looked outside his faculty for a solution. He partnered with Kellogg Booth, a computer-interaction specialist at UBC’s Institute for Computing, Information and Cognitive Systems. They realized that scientists are well versed in reading graphs and figures but that politicians, fisheries managers and the public typically are not.

“Scientists all speak the same language,” says Booth. “When they talk to someone who’s not a researcher, they have to present things in a different way so that person can understand.”

The team saw the need to develop a new communication tool — a translator of sorts for scientists and stakeholders. “In the end, all management decisions are social and political,” says Christensen. “All stakeholders have to understand the issues and trade-offs that all the other stakeholders are offering. To really understand the compromise, they must be able to visualize it.”

So Christensen’s team used 50 years of ecosystem-modelling data to create interactive and animated software that could develop “what if” scenarios and allow decision-makers to see the results of their virtual choices in real time.

They didn’t stop there. Christensen and his colleagues also designed and built a scenario lab at the Aquatic Ecosystems Research Laboratory at UBC specifically to run the software at management meetings. Everything from the layout of the meeting room to the size of the embedded screens and the colour of the paint was tested to make the lab an optimal environment for decision making.

The lab, opened in March 2006, has resulted in the development of a new approach to fisheries management, focused on active involvement of policy makers and other stakeholders in developing and testing future — and more promising — scenarios.