In 2010, the term "crowdsourcing" was not quite grown up, still just 4 years old, but already it had found the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. By accident, really.
For the previous seven years, Maryland Fishing and Boating Services had posted fisheries research biologist Keith Lockwood's weekly Maryland Fishing Report on its website. More and more anglers were reaching out to the DNR unit, however, sending photos of their latest catches. And there was a lot of information to reckon with.
"It would almost be like a live Facebook update or a weather report," Erik Zlokovitz, the DNR's recreational fisheries outreach coordinator, said recently.
The digital age had long since transformed the news cycle; the DNR's decision to build and host an online Maryland Angler's Log, then, in some ways reflected the changing times. People still wanted to fish, but they also wanted to broadcast what they'd just hooked on their line. They wanted to see how others had fared on the water the day before, too.
Before long, the digital bulletin board had the attention of DNR biologists. There were photos of the sought-after state fish, striped bass, which was to be expected. More relevant were the shots of invasive species.
Take, for instance, a post Monday on the log by a man who identified himself as Nate Gillard, a recreational angler. The headline: "Snakehead off Surrats Road." The predatory fish, a threat to some ecosystems, had been caught in Prince George's County's Piscataway Creek. "Until I got him to shore, I couldn't believe what I caught, a 16" Snakehead!" Gillard wrote.
For Paul Genovese, a Fishing and Boating Services program manager, the hope is that posts like Gillard's are their own kind of advertisement. While Genovese said the log's entries have not directly led DNR officials to any policy changes — "It's like another data point for them," Zlokovitz explained — they still have served as a kind of environmental force in the state's waterways.
"It helps us keep the population down to continue to ask the public to go out and harvest these fish when they can," Genovese said. "And we've noticed with the snakehead, the population, or at least the number of reports, has gone down. There's even a commercial fishery for them now. And again, I kind of attribute that to the Angler's Log."
The log also has proved educational, for anglers and biologists alike. Genovese said some contributors, after catching an unfamiliar-looking fish, will post a photo of their haul along with other relevant information — how big it is, where it was caught — and, in turn, have the species identified.
The DNR, meanwhile, has been able to better document what Zlokovitz called "rare-event species" because of the volume and variance of angler reports. (On one page of the log, with 10 entries from the previous four days, locations ranged from as far south as Nan's Cove, in Calvert County, to as far east as Ocean City.)
Last summer, officials noticed an uptick in the number of cobia — long, large, normally solitary fish that inhabit the Chesapeake Bay's deep, open waters during warmer months. Dozens were caught outside St. Mary's County, an unusual development in the lower bay. The log proved a valuable resource.
A finfish biologist who tracks the spawning populations of red drum, Genovese said, also has come to depend partly on the outside input.
"This is one way to figure out how far up the bay they are coming," Zlokovitz said. "We're actually kind of figuring out where some of these more interesting and exotic species are showing up in the bay and how often they're showing up."
Much of the data is anecdotal, Zlokovitz acknowledged, but nonetheless useful when neighboring states inquire about trends in Maryland's recreational fisheries.
The surface area of the Chesapeake Bay and its major tributaries is more than 4,000 square miles, after all. Sometimes a little outside help is appreciated.
"Since we can't always be out on the water ourselves, unfortunately," Zlokovitz said, "it's nice to have this information coming in to us."