How Old Family Fishing Photos Unlock the History of Atlantic Fisheries

Citizen Science Salon is a partnership between Discover and SciStarter.org.


Rusty Hudson grew up on the salt-laden docks of Daytona Beach, Florida. As a third-generation fisherman, he naturally took to the industry. When he was just 9 years old, Hudson started his first job as a bait boy aboard the Mako, a charter boat owned by his grandfather, Captain Jake Stone. 

By the late 1960s, he was working regularly on his family’s fishing boats. While guests prepared to shuffle aboard the boat to pursue a myriad of fish species, including snappers, groupers, jacks, mackerels, and dolphinfish (mahi-mahi), Hudson busied himself with bait prep. On days that the Mako hosted a small party of fishermen, the boy would get to pick up a rod and join them. And after customers returned to the dock from a day of fishing with Hudson, his grandfather and the crew, they would pose with the captain and their catch to commemorate the day. Each photo created a record of the catch, the people, and the experience, a memento for the family photo album. 

Years later, these historic photos are providing more than just memories of a fun day fishing on the water. Hudson realized how valuable his family’s photos could be in re-creating the catch from the 1940s to 1970s — a time before scientific monitoring programs collected data on recreational and for-hire fisheries. “I felt the for-hire pictures of the past could illustrate the range of fishing conditions and catches to fishery scientists and managers,” Hudson says. Knowing more about the fisheries of the past could help all of us better understand the health of fish populations today.


Take Part: Join FISHstory and Help Scientists Sleuth Old Fishing Photos


fish story fishstory

Thanks to citizen scientists, researchers are learning about how fisheries have changed in the past half century by studying an archive of family photos taken after sport fishing trips. (Credit: Rusty Hudson/Hudson, Stone, and Timmons Families)

FISHstory’s Beginnings 

The idea for the FISHstory project was hatched over a decade ago when Hudson participated in a stock assessment for red snapper in the South Atlantic. As his family’s informal historian, he had amassed an archive of hundreds of historic photos from his family’s fishing fleet. When he showed the photos to scientists, it kickstarted discussions about the insights these photos might unlock. The value of these photos was evident to all, as they represented one of the only data sources available to document recreational and for-hire catches from this historic time period. However, analyzing hundreds of photos can be labor intensive — so there were challenges in getting a project off the ground. 

Enter the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s (SAFMC) Citizen Science Program. Headquartered in Charleston, South Carolina, the SAFMC is responsible for the conservation and management of fisheries in federal waters from North Carolina through the Florida Keys. The SAFMC’s Citizen Science Program was developed over the course of three years with guidance from a wide array of stakeholders and partners. The