By Jesse Schneider

Upon finishing his doctorate, Will Heyman wanted to improve ocean health, a mission that took him to the Gladden Spit in Belize’s Barrier Reef.

After years there interviewing local fishers, Heyman discovered that as many as 20 species of fish used the Gladden Spit as a spawning aggregation site, predictably and annually.

“It blew my mind,” said Heyman, a senior marine scientist at LGL Ecological Research Associates, an environmental research and consulting firm.

In a session with National Press Foundation fellows, Heyman described spawning aggregation as a grouping of the same species of fish for reproduction. Heyman’s findings helped curb fishery depletion, as the Belize government established 11 protected marine areas. Mexico, Cuba and the United States soon followed suit with similar measures, including the creation of special management zones for spawning.

These measures have yielded some encouraging results. A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study found that of 317 fishing stocks, 91 percent were not overfished. (That said, fewer than 50 percent of U.S. stocks have been assessed, making real progress hard to quantify.)

So what is Heyman’s solution for protecting fish aggregation spots?

An initiative called Big Fish, which is a network of fishermen, scientists and managers who cooperatively monitor and protect spawning aggregations. The goal is to use existing institutions to support regional monitoring, recovery and resilience of fisheries, coastal economies and marine ecosystems.

“We don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time,” Heyman said.

Heyman presents journalists with a wealth of potential ideas for stories.

“The most important – talk to fishermen!” Heyman said. He recommended reaching out to winners of the Gladding Memorial Award, which honors fishers who “have an enduring vision for the sustainable and wise use of marine resources.”

Among other potential story ideas for journalists: Tagging along on exchange programs that take fishers to different countries to learn about fish populations in foreign waters.

“This is the most powerful tool I’ve ever seen,” Heyman said. It’s especially eye-opening for young fishers who think that a fish population can never be destroyed.