Fi­nal Num­bers

Im­proved, more ac­cu­rate catch data holds big prom­ise.

Saltwater Sportsman - - Contents - RIP CUNNINGHAM

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.

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