Feature Stories 2023: Luca McGinnis '23: Fishing for answers

student lucy mcginnis against red and orange wall
Feature Stories 2023: Luca McGinnis '23: Fishing for answers
Luca McGinnis '23: Fishing for answers

Luca McGinnis ‘23 is a graduate student and researcher motivated by a love of the ocean and a desire to make a difference.

Luca McGinnis ‘23 is a Marine Science and Technology graduate student and researcher motivated by a love of the ocean and a desire to make a difference. For McGinnis, building a better future for humans and the natural environment starts with small acts of cooperation.  

Their research focuses on developing methods for assessing fish stocks using fishery-dependent data.   

How and why did you get interested in marine science? 

“I always loved the ocean. As an undergraduate, I studied marine science at Boston University. I wanted to help solve the problem of how humans live in the natural environment, and how we can do better, and that led me to continue doing research.” 

Why did you choose UMass Dartmouth for your master’s studies?  

“I was interested in working in fisheries and exploring the knot of ecology, economics, and politics that is fisheries management. I also wanted to build a quantitative skill set that I had been missing in my undergraduate studies. So, I applied for a job in Gavin Fay’s lab. I didn’t get the job, but Dr. Fay encouraged me to come to SMAST for graduate school. As often happens, that missed opportunity ended up leading me to the right place.” 

Why study fisheries?  

“Stock assessment produces information that helps us make decisions about fisheries management and conservation. My thesis focuses on Atlantic cod.”   

Lucy explains that they are interested in how to use fishery-dependent data to develop model-based standardized indices of abundance (the number of fish in a stock). Their research on Atlantic cod stock assessment explores how scientists can collaborate with fishermen to develop better data for decision-making. 

“Surveys designed to sample groundfish species in the Northeastern U.S. can’t get perfect data; adding fishermen’s perspectives to data collection not only supplements the information from the surveys, but it also increases their buy-in to the scientific process. Incorporating fishery-dependent data in our modeling also helps to break down the ‘us vs. them' narrative and brings all the voices to the table.”  


smast student lucy mcginnis standing in front of their research poster at the 2023 IMS symposium
Luca McGinnis '23 presented their research at the 2023 UMass Intercampus Marine Science Research Symposium at SMAST.

What about your field is most exciting to you?  

“It’s both exciting and terrifying that nobody has the answers. There is no perfect way to manage fisheries. But there are lots of (possibly) better ways. So, there is a lot of potential in this field.  

“Fisheries management is very much a balancing act between the health of the environment, the economic needs of the people, and political motivations and influence on the issue. I’m interested in how these are all intertwined.”  

What’s one thing you wish people knew about fisheries? 

“From an environmental standpoint, the fishing industry and fishermen are sometimes painted in a bad light. In reality, fishermen aren’t the ‘bad guys,’ they’re just people who are trying to make a living. And they’re very knowledgeable about the ecosystems they fish in – often more so than the scientists in a lab.  

“We can’t live without fisheries the same way we can’t live without farming; we just need to find better ways to do it.” 

How has UMass Dartmouth/SMAST prepared you for your future?  

“The faculty at SMAST help us make real-world connections and get other perspectives on our work. At SMAST, my advisor, Gavin Fay, emphasized open data science workflows, which prepared me to work independently and with other teams in an effective way.  

“Seeing how SMAST is so involved with local fisheries and the community has taught me a lot about how valuable it is to nurture those relationships.  

“An example of the real-world connections fostered here at SMAST was when Professor Steve Cadrin (principal investigator on the groundfish project I worked on) organized a meeting between our student analysts and fishermen in Gloucester. We heard from them about what affects catch rates, what types of data need to go into our models in order for them to be useful, and other insights. That day was so informative and powerful. It really opened my eyes in so many ways and made me understand how much we can learn from each other.”  


What are you most proud of? 

“I’m proud of constantly pushing myself outside my comfort zone. So much of my experience in grad school has been new, difficult, and scary. I didn’t succeed at everything I tried, but I learned so much more than if I had stuck to what I was good at.” 

What’s next for you? 

“I want to do more cooperative research with fishermen to continue to improve the way we do things – even if it’s just in one corner of one fishery, small changes can make a difference.”  

What advice do you have for future marine science students?  

“You’re probably in this field because you want to save the world. Don’t get discouraged when you can’t do that right away. Spend time cultivating a skillset that will make 'Future You' capable of tackling the problems in the world that you want to address. 

And, never stop asking questions. If you don’t understand the answer, ask someone else. Hold onto your passion and curiosity. Chase what interests you. If you’ve gotten this far in academia, it’s probably because you’re good at knowing the answers. In grad school, you’re going to be working on questions that no one has the answers to, so don’t panic when you get stumped.”