Improved, more accurate catch data holds big promise.
EE It has been a long journey, but it certainly looks like we are getting close to the end of the effort to overhaul the data collection process and efforts for the recreational fishing community. What started in 2006 with the National Academy of Sciences’ “fatally flawed” declaration has now been transformed into a much more robust system to collect catch and effort information about recreational fishing. Data that can be relied on, even though there may not be universal acceptance of that statement.
Going back to 1979, the Marine Recreational Fisheries Statistics Survey (MRFSS) was put in place to get an estimate of the recreational catch. This effort was never designed to be used for regulatory or management purposes. But as time passed and managers needed some sort of guidance to craft and implement regulations, the MRFSS was the only real choice. For those who tended to not like whatever regulations were put in place, there was a full-court press to discredit the numbers as totally unreliable since the methodology was never designed to be used that way. Some complained that the MRFSS underestimated the real catch, and some screamed that it overestimated. All those who perceived management to be too restrictive pushed back on using the numbers, high or low.
MRFSS data collection had two distinct parts. The Access Point Angler Intercept Survey (APAIS) was/is an on-the-dock survey of angler catch composition for the private angler. Those on party or charter boats are recorded in a separate for-hire survey.
In aggregate, those catch stats give an average per angler of the catch per trip. The other segment of the data collection was a Coastal Household Telephone Survey (CHTS). This was a random-dialed survey to find out if anyone in the household went fishing during that two-month period and how many times. So, multiply the average catch per angler times an estimate of the number of trips, and by golly, you should come up with a reasonable estimate of what is being caught overall. If the numbers are accurate, that is.
Fast forward to 2006 to the National Academy of Sciences issuing a report on the MRFSS system of collecting data. It declared, much to the joy of those against the reasonable management of recreational fisheries, that the MRFSS was “fatally flawed.” The focus of the concern was the CHTS, which the NAS declared to be inefficient and inherently biased.
The NAS made recommendations centered on eliminating the CHTS and replacing it with data collection through the National Saltwater Registry. This new method is called the Fishing Effort Survey (FES). Developing and testing a new mail-based survey to known anglers took longer than anticipated, but in 2017, the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP) got a reasonable thumbs up from a new review by the NAS, which said that NOAA Fisheries had improved the process and that “the overall statistical soundness of the redesigned program is expected to lead to better estimates of total fish caught.”
One of the tasks was a calibration model for comparison between the old and the new surveys. This was completed and the historical-time series of catch comparison was released in early July. The numbers changed upward. For the private angler, trips were 2.9 times higher, and for shore-based anglers, 5.9 times higher. That translates into many more fish caught.
What does that mean? Will that translate into recreational anglers exceeding many of the annual catch limits (ACLS)? Does it mean fewer fish in the ocean? Will the numbers be used to change allocations? The answers are: not necessarily and no, hopefully.
Since scientists work backward to figure out the stock size, if more fish are caught, that has to mean there are more fish out there to catch. So, if the new numbers are used in the upcoming assessments, that should lead to increased spawning-stock biomass and, secondarily, to increased ACLS. The real question concerns the use of substantially different numbers in the reallocation of individual species.
It would be good news if NOAA Fisheries was planning to issue new definitive guidelines for how the regional fishery management councils (RFMCS) should address these changes in stock size as they pertain to the reallocation of certain species. Unfortunately, it appears that NOAA Fisheries has no plans to change the existing weak guidelines. Allocation of resources is one of the most contentious issues faced by RFMCS, and without strict guidelines on when they need to be readdressed, this issue will be kicked down the proverbial road.
So, the good news is that the new MRIP numbers show that recreational fishing is even bigger than we thought it was. Now we need to find a way to turn these positive numbers into positive action.
Rip CunninghamWorking toward a better way to count and manage fish.