Spring 1993 // Volume 31 // Number 1 // Feature Articles // 1FEA4

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Participatory Learning in Natural Resource Education

This article describes an ongoing natural resource management Extension program focusing on improving the management of fisheries through participatory learning and long-term engagement of learner and expert.

David M. Green
Senior Research Associate
Department of Natural Resources
Cornell University Biological Field Station, Bridgeport, New York;

Edward L. Mills
Senior Research Associate
Department of Natural Resources
Cornell University Biological Field Station, Bridgeport, New York;

Daniel J. Decker
Associate Professor
Department of Natural Resources
Cornell University, Ithaca, New York

An important tenet of Extension program development is that people learn best through a hands-on approach or participatory learning. In Extension programs for owners and users of natural resources, we've found participatory learning helps people find ways to adapt practices to better suit their particular needs and situations or to modify their original objectives to better reflect the management potential of their resources. This potential seems especially high when participants and resource management experts are engaged in a long-term dialogue, rather than a one-time teaching/learning encounter.

Participatory Learning

This article describes an ongoing natural resource management Extension program focusing on improving the management of fisheries through participatory learning and long-term engagement of learner and expert. New York State has about 40,000 farm ponds. Most of these ponds and many of the 6,400 small- to medium-sized lakes are privately owned or controlled by individuals or groups. Most of these ponds are either unmanaged or mismanaged, yet they have the potential to support significant fishing efforts that can provide both food and recreation. Like woodlots and pastures, successful management of small lakes and ponds requires the owners to invest time and energy in learning some basic principles for management, making decisions about their management objectives, and then carrying out and evaluating management practices that allow them to meet their objectives.

The pilot private fishery management program assumed it was important to get the owners of the fisheries resources directly and personally involved in the management activities. Although the general principles of fishery management should apply, enough differences existed among owners, bodies of waters, and fish communities that close interaction between experts and owners would be essential. The object was to establish a partnership where the owners would be encouraged to contact "experts" (program leaders) when they felt advice was needed.

In addition, it was important not only to help people see what to do, but also to understand why. Thus, the program stressed the ecological principles involved in fishery management, rather than simply prescribing practices. We wanted the owners and users to develop a rudimentary understanding of the system they were manipulating and why the practices they'd follow have the impacts on the fishery they'd observe.

Management Concept

To achieve goals set forth by the owners, we applied three features of limnological and fishery research developed over the last two decades to the management of each water. First, the program used anglers to collect data about the status of fish populations. Angler diaries, used extensively in public fishery management programs, are ideally suited for participatory learning when coupled with appropriate educational materials. We believed they'd be especially well-received in this private fishery program because the participants would be motivated to cooperate since they'd be the beneficiaries of their effort.

Second, we assessed the predator-prey balance through an analysis of the zooplankton (microscopic free-floating animal life) community. Indices of aquatic ecosystem status are useful in making fishery management recommendations and determining whether objectives are being achieved. Body size of the zooplankton community has been a useful index of fish community structure in warmwater lakes, particularly those dominated by bass and sunfish. Researchers have found fish predation can influence the size structure of zooplankton communities in lakes and that the length-frequency curve for fish mirrors the curve for zooplankton. Samples of zooplankton are also easy for program participants to collect and preserve.

Third, size-selective harvest is a well-developed strategy for managing fish populations. Harvest recommendations for different sizes of fish are made based on the size of both fish and zooplankton, fish management objectives of the owners, and the biological limitations of both the fish population and the body of water. Recommendations may include harvesting only very large bass or no harvest (catch and release), fish under a selected size, or bass over and under a certain size with the release of intermediate size fish. Zooplankton samples, along with fish length and catch records from cooperating anglers, would provide the information necessary to make size-selective harvest recommendations that would enhance the quality of fishing.

Partnership with Owners and Anglers

Participants in the pilot program were selected from applicants responding to a screening questionnaire that evaluated the water body, existing fishery, and objectives and commitment of the owner. After screening, 19 ponds and small lakes ranging from 0.4 to 155 hectares were selected, representing a variety of types of owners: individuals (7), lake associations (3), fishing clubs (2), private communities (2), a public pond (1), and the United States Military Academy (4). All or most of the fishing was controlled by participants in the program. The dominant fish community in most waters was large- mouth bass and bluegill.

Program cooperators were issued a diary, a fish measuring rule, and written instructions for collecting information. An educational videotape was also sent to reinforce the written materials and demonstrate sampling and data collection methods. Cooperators recorded in their diaries trip information including date, duration, number of anglers, type of fishing, and data for the fish caught (species, number, length of each fish, and whether the fish were kept or released). Anglers/owners used a sampling kit and instructions provided by the program to collect data on water quality and zooplankton.

The pilot program created a partnership between biologists and lake owners/anglers through which research findings were applied to the management of bass and panfish populations in private waters. The fishery experts used remote communications and package services, employing the mail, private delivery services, and telephone to interact frequently with program participants. They evaluated the angling records and limnological and zooplankton samples collected by the participants. These data were used to determine the status of the fishery and, together with angler/owner objectives, used to make management recommendations. The management objectives of the anglers were based on results of a questionnaire asking about fish species preferences, the size of fish preferred, the level of satisfaction the water body currently provided, and any problems. For all water bodies, size-selective fish harvest was recommended to achieve management objectives.

Often pond/lake owners were given a range of size-selective harvest options from which to choose, depending on their interests and objectives, thus making the owners/users a direct part of the decision-making process. The consequences of the different options were explained and owners decided which practice to follow.


Angler interest was high. In all waters owned by individuals, all participants returned diaries, while for most groups the diaries were returned by 60-90% of cooperators. Throughout the pilot program, two-way communication was routine between the participants and the biologists leading the program. Through frequent informal communications, the participants received information and had their questions about fishery management answered. Seventy-four percent of the waters remain in the program.

A questionnaire was sent to participants with one to three years in the program (n=15 representing 19 waters) to evaluate whether they improved their understanding of their fishery resource. Most (92%) indicated they'd gained a better understanding of how fishery resources could be managed through size-selective harvest. Many respondents indicated they'd learned a good deal about indicators of fishing quality (79%), the concept of carrying capacity (67%), and predator-prey balance (64%). Participants also reported a strong interest in receiving more information about fishery and lake management, including topics outside those planned as part of the pilot fishery management program. This gave us ideas of ways to expand the scope of the program in the future.

Over two-thirds (71%) of the participants believed they'd improved their understanding of fishery management through their involvement in the pilot program. The partnership aspect of the program was valuable-93% believed the partnership between fishery expert and lake/pond owners was an excellent way to achieve their goals of fishery and lake management. Anglers learned the basics of fishery management from biologists, who provided materials and equipment, analyzed samples and data, and made management recommendations based on anglers' objectives. Anglers collected data and samples, decided on the type of fishery they wanted, and implemented management recommendations. The experts' recommendations had been implemented by 84% of the respondents and another five percent were planning to do so the next season.


The fish population manipulations currently under way will require further evaluation and adjustments as necessary. Annually, anglers will record their catch in diaries, and collect zooplankton samples so that changes in the fish community can be monitored. Thus, anglers and owners of these fishery resources will continue to participate and learn about fishery management.

The 19 waters in the pilot program represented the majority of the types of waters found in the warmwater farm ponds and small lakes in New York, making the management approach applicable throughout the state. It can be applied through county or regional Extension offices, state fishery management agencies, or by fishery management firms. The Extension program was also shown to be economical, requiring 1 to 1.5 technician and 1 to 3 professional person days per water, depending on the amount of individual attention provided and the availability of prepared materials.

From a resource management perspective, similar Extension programs may provide a relatively inexpensive way to apply state- of-the-art fishery management techniques to private waters in many states. Perhaps the strongest aspect of the program is the direct participation of the anglers in decision making as well as carrying out the management decisions. Participants developed firsthand understanding of "their resource" and in so doing gained more realistic expectations of its management potential. In this participatory learning process, anglers became involved early in the decisions about the fishery and participated continually in management. The participatory learning model coupled with the partnership between angler and fishery experts is an approach with promise for application in many Extension natural resource management educational programs.