There are 800,000 registered anglers in Hungary, making them the most populous community among those who use surface waters. At the same time, neither ecologists nor conservationists have much comprehension of the knowledge of anglers or their relationship to ecology in general, which is why it is vital to start a dialogue with them about the condition and protection of these bodies of water. With this objective in mind, the ELKH Centre for Ecological Research (CER) has launched a set of research studies, the first step of which was to assess the aquatic plant knowledge of anglers. The first results were released by researchers in a study published in early November in the prestigious journal Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine. One conclusion that can be drawn from these findings is that although the ecological knowledge of recreational anglers is not comparable to that of traditional natural peoples, they still acquire important knowledge about wildlife and are able to recall it with confidence.

On average, one in ten people in the world fish for pleasure. Of course, many of these people also perform many other water-related activities while preparing to go fishing, and in some cases spend the whole day by the water. During this time, they have the opportunity to observe the coastal ecosystem and the aquatic flora and fauna. Due to their interest in fishing, they also tend to read more about the environment of the fish than people who do not fish.

Although the local ecological knowledge (LEK) of experts – anglers, hunters, and shepherds –living in natural surroundings and the use of local ecosystem services has become increasingly important in ecological research in recent decades, it is only in the last decade that has it been recognised that the knowledge of recreational anglers can make a contribution to scientific research. While it would seem to make sense to test anglers’ knowledge of fish, the results of this would be too obvious. Naturally, most anglers know a lot more about fish than most people, which is why the researchers at the CER Institute of Aquatic Ecology (VÖI) took a different approach during their dialogue with Hungarian recreational anglers.

“We conducted structured interviews with anglers about some of the more common and rarer plant species in Hungarian wetlands. The study was only partially aimed at assessing the level of knowledge of the fishermen. We consider it to be as least as important to start a dialogue with them,” says Viktor Löki, a researcher at the Functional Ecology Research Group of the Institute of Aquatic Ecology, and head of the research. “In the study, we show anglers pictures of 24 aquatic or waterfront plants and ask them about their knowledge of them.”

Ecologists interviewed anglers at three locations: Lake Velence, the Keleti Main Canal, and a fishing lake near Debrecen. These conversations also recorded details from the anglers on how long they have been fishing, their characteristic behaviour, and their relationship with nature in general. This was followed by a test where they had to recognize aquatic plants from an image. If they could not name the plant, but said they knew it by sight, the researchers checked this assertion with control questions. If the anglers knew other basic details about the plants, this was also recorded.

“Of the 24 plant species, anglers were able to name an average of 4.6 species, and recognized an additional 7.4, although they could not name them. In other words, half of the presented plants were recognized by anglers,” continues Viktor Löki. “This result was partly in line with our expectations, but it was surprising that the level of knowledge of anglers differed in the three locations. At Lake Velence, anglers – who typically go there from the capital and fish for a shorter time – recognized fewer plants than the anglers in the other locations.”

The results show that anglers involuntarily observe phenomena, such as local plants, that are not of particular interest to them, and that they are not necessarily aware that they are gathering knowledge about the plants. Like the local ecological knowledge of natural peoples, the longer anglers fish, the more they seem to know more about nature. From this, it can be concluded that most of their knowledge is not acquired in school, but rather in their spare time.

“We thought of many further questions. For example, in addition to further descriptive studies on their ecological knowledge, it would definitely be worth comparing the ecological knowledge of fishermen with the knowledge of other social groups,” argues Viktor Löki. “This knowledge is essential to accurately assess the ecological role of recreational anglers in conserving aquatic ecosystems.”