Meet sustainability student and researcher Caitlyn Finnegan

Caitlyn Finnegan is a junior in the School of Sustainability who has spent her summer conducting research on fisheries with Assistant Professor Kailin Kroetz. Fisheries have always been a model for sustainable management, challenges, and discipline. They represent a relationship between humans and marine ecosystems.

“My interest in aquatic ecosystems and how anthropogenic activities interfere with their success drew me to assist Dr. Kailin Kroetz with her fisheries research. Fishery research is impactful because it represents a natural resource that continues to be negatively disrupted by human behavior globally.”

Read more from Finnegan in her Q&A. 

Sustainability Connect Question (SC): Can you tell us a little bit about your passions in sustainability and research?

Caitlyn Finnegan (CF): I am passionate about exploring the unbalanced relationship between human and natural systems, especially the threat that human activities pose to aquatic systems. This sentiment stems from my interest in plastic pollution and the fact that humans have only explored 20% of the ocean. My participation in an undergraduate research internship on fisheries proved to be a rewarding experience as it allowed for my learning to occur beyond the classroom and provided an opportunity to hone in on potential career paths.

SC: What drove you to do research about fisheries?

CF: [M]y interest in aquatic ecosystems and how anthropogenic activities interfere with their success drew me to assist Dr. Kailin Kroetz with her fisheries research. Fisheries research is impactful because it focuses on a natural resource and trade that people depend on globally, and continues to be negatively disrupted by human behavior globally. 

SC: How is a fishery defined? What is a fishery disaster?

CF: The definition of a fishery is one or more stocks of fish which can be treated as a unit for conservation and management purposes, and have parallel characteristics, such as geographical location and economic value (U.S Department of Commerce). 

A fishery disaster refers to a commercial fishery failure disrupting the production of a fishery resource, that arises from natural causes, man-made causes beyond the control of fishery managers, and undetermined causes. The Secretary of Commerce determines if the fishery failure meets the parameters, under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) and the Interjurisdictional Fisheries Act (IFA), to constitute as a fishery disaster. Congress is then responsible for appropriating the necessary funds for fishery disaster relief.

An example of a fishery disaster is the 2016 Gulf of Alaska Pink Salmon Disaster, which is the subject of my research internship this summer.

SC: Tell us about your project and the trends that you are seeing. 

CF: This summer, I participated in a 6-week internship focused on the Economic and Equity Impacts of Fisheries Disasters and the relationship of Federal Disaster Aid. I was tasked with analyzing the federal aid dispersal and the socio-economic impacts of the 2016 Pink Salmon Disaster that took place in the Gulf of Alaska, devastating seven management areas. This consisted of examining news articles, government documents, and academic journals, as well as an interview with a native Alaskan news journalist.

These seven management areas experienced an 84% decrease in ex-vessel pink salmon value (relative to the five-year ex-vessel value of the even years). The phenomenon was not explicitly traced to a sole cause, as scientists were wary to link the fishery disaster to climate change. Additionally, pink salmon harvests are inherently volatile due to biological and environmental factors.  However, the 2016 pink salmon disaster was not an isolated event. There have been a handful of other fishery disasters declared in the past 5 years due to natural causes. As marine pollution, environmental degradation, and overexploitation of natural resources becomes more prevalent, fishery disasters will be more frequent and increasingly destructive.  

Pink Salmon Disaster Synthesis (PDF)

SC: Who is impacted by fishery disasters?

CF: Alaska’s commercial fishing industry employs ten of thousands of workers. The livelihood of fishing communities rests directly on the health of fisheries — fishermen rely on the boat’s catch for revenue during the summer months. A disastrous fishing season can financially jeopardize more than permit holders and fishermen — it also impacts processors and maritime industry workers directly.

Over two-thirds of the fish caught in Alaska is exported to over 105 countries, with the remaining one-third being purchased across the United States (McDowell Group). Consumers are therefore impacted by higher prices and decreased availability in supermarkets and restaurants. 

SC: How do you determine the success of research and how is it measured by you?

CF: The success of research should be measured by the quality and utilization of the work. Research often ends as an academic journal or a book chapter or another form of publication, not always translated into practice or awareness. Research of sound quality allows for future collaboration of other researchers, which in turn expands the research through new thought processes and methods. The utilization of research can trigger social and environmental development or even foster critical thinking. Any impact of research, no matter how big or small, would be considered a success to me.

My research on the 2016 Gulf of Alaska Pink Salmon Disaster has the potential to contribute to new policies, such as the development of a standard structure of federal aid payout and quicker payout time. Additionally, the success of my research is also determined by the awareness it raises regarding the environmental impacts on fisheries and the importance of fisheries to local fishing communities and the global economy.