Sean Yeckley knows the local fishing holes and small creeks of coastal Georgia better than most. He’s been fishing here since his dad started taking him out on the water as a kid. “I just got hooked on it,” he says in his distinctive Savannah accent.
Yeckley is one of the local informants for a Nature Conservancy project that is mapping human uses of the coast. The Coastal Georgia Human Use Mapping Project aims to add human uses of coastal waters to existing maps that already show current and planned development as well as the location of natural resources.
The Conservancy’s Bob Crimian, originally a native of Philadelphia, has embedded himself in Georgia’s coastal communities to collect data about where and how people use the coast. “This type of data is needed to preserve the places people love to use day-to-day,” Crimian says.
It’s surprising that any fisherman would willingly reveal his favorite spots, especially to a scientist from up north. But it is Yeckley’s love for the coast that led him to circle spots on a map where he and other people around Savannah like to fish.
Sean Yeckley fishing © The Nature Conservancy (Brian Wills)
Convincing the fishermen to relinquish this valued information starts with open and honest explanations of the goal, explains Crimian. “I don’t make promises I can’t keep. I don’t guarantee that this project will save their fishing hole. But I stress that if they keep that information to themselves, it has zero chance of being protected by decision-makers.”
The community here is close knit, and the process is more intimate than the massive operations that have produced detailed maps and coastal plans elsewhere. “There’s a lot of trust-building and rightfully so,” Crimian says. “We’ve scaled the map into a kilometer by kilometer grid to reduce the risk that others can pinpoint the exact location of fishing spots and over-exploit them.”
In addition to fishing, the project documents boating, paddling, diving, eco-tours and birding, and then translates those stories into data to create use maps. The data will help identify new fishing holes to lessen the pressure on overfished areas and show which spaces need to be kept open for fishing and recreation based on how many people use them.
Eventually, Crimian also wants to capture commercial fishing and track where subsistence fishing occurs to support people who depend on fishing to feed their families.
While many Georgians benefit from the system of protected outer barrier islands, fishermen are especially aware that overuse is a constant threat to these estuaries. “For a lot of people, their backyard is salt marsh, it is the open maritime forest, it is the beaches. So I think there’s this idea of ‘this is my home; I want to maintain it,” says Yeckley.
“I think everyone wants to share something they’re passionate about in some form. This is one way to do that. It’s storytelling through a map,” Crimian says, “I think people can get on board with that.”
It was THIS big! © The Nature Conservancy (Brian Wills)
Eventually, Crimian hopes to use this project, a collaboration with the Georgia Institute of Technology and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Coastal Resources Division, as an example to get other South Atlantic states (North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida) on board with human use mapping in the marine environment..
For Georgia, Crimian explains that he hopes decision makers will put the information to good use when considering potentially competing uses for coastal waters—such as energy development, recreation and habitat protection or restoration. “Now, when decisions are made about the future of Georgia’s coast, these maps exist to give everyone a seat at the table, and the human needs of coastal residents can be addressed alongside industry and natural resources, keeping the coast beautiful and full of the people who love it most.”