Sunday, March 1, 2015


“Trust, but verify.”
It was one of the iconic phrases of the waning Cold War, uttered by President Ronald Reagan as he negotiated an arms control deal with the Soviet Union.

The phrase wasn’t actually coined by Reagan; it was an old Russian saying that the President used against the Soviets when it served his needs, but it’s still good advice.

It’s something that’s important to remember, because more and more, we’re seeing states and various industry groups trying to augment, or even replace, the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Marine Recreational Information Program with self-reporting programs of various sorts that rely on anglers and for-hire operators to do the right thing every time they go out.

The effort seems to be particularly popular in the case of fisheries that are subject to strict federal regulations that require short fishing seasons, small bag limits or other similar, unpopular measures.

The federal-waters red snapper fishery in the Gulf of Mexico is arguably the most heavily-restricted recreational fishery on any of America’s coasts.  Thus, it is hardly surprising that, last year, the State of Alabama initiated a mandatory self-reporting program intended provide better (from a snapper fisherman’s standpoint, if not necessarily from a biologist’s, that translates to “smaller”) estimates of recreational red snapper landings.

Alabama states that it initiated the program because

“The credibility of the current federal surveys used to estimate recreational red snapper harvests among private and charter anglers has been under ever increasing scrutiny…recent changes to the federal law that governs how red snapper are managed have led to the imposition of stricter regulations each year with slim hopes for improvement.  A timely and accurate method of counting fish such as the mandatory reporting program could improve the predicament that we face in this fishery.”
In other words, the program was put in place with the hopes that it would produce lower harvest estimates than the method used by the feds.

And in its first year, that’s exactly what happened.

Last June, when the federal red snapper season was open, NMFS estimated that Alabama anglers landed about 1,041,000 pounds of such fish, while the Alabama survey estimated that harvest to be a mere 418,000 pounds. 

The question, of course, is “Which number is right?”

The federal MRIP estimates were derived from a program intended to improve upon the admittedly flawed Marine Recreational Fishing Statistical Survey; however, MRIP remains a work in progress that is still transitioning from the MRFSS format into its final form.  

It is based on a rigorously analyzed statistical format, and consists of both physical surveys of angler catch and telephone and/or mail surveys used to estimate angler effort.

To implement the Alabama survey,

“Representatives from recreational vessels with red snapper on board are required to report red snapper prior to landing fish in Alabama.”
They may make such reports through

“…smartphone app for IOS and Android devices found under the Official Outdoor Alabama App…at respective app stores, online…, or on paper forms found at select coastal public boat launches...”
It’s not clear how a vessel is supposed to report red snapper “prior to landing fish in Alabama” through the use of paper forms (perhaps fold them into airplanes and toss them toward shore?), or how many anglers without the required app take the trouble to get such paper forms if they don’t happen to return to one of the “select coastal public boat launches.”

With a system like that, it might be that a few red snapper fall through the cracks and aren’t counted, either because there isn’t a paper form close at hand, or because anglers, hungry and tired at the end of a long day offshore, just don’t get around to reporting, electronically or otherwise, despite the new requirements.

After all, NMFS requires all bluefin tuna caught by anglers to be reported, too, but when I spoke with one of the NMFS staffers responsible for managing bluefin at NMFS' Recreational Fishing Summit held down in Alexandria last April, he lamented that anglers actually reported only about one out of every five bluefin caught.

If Alabama snapper anglers are no more conscientious than their bluefin-catching counterparts elsewhere on the coast, it’s not surprising that the state survey figures come in a little bit low…

But recreational underreporting isn’t just a tuna or red snapper problem.

Here in New York, and throughout the northeast, party and charter boats are supposed to fill out Vessel Trip Reports setting forth all of their landings.  New York may have the strictest requirements, using a VTR that is essentially identical to the federal form.

Yet when we look at striped bass, we seem to find problems.

NMFS estimates that anglers fishing from for-hire boats in the State of New York landed 234,650 striped bass in 2014.  At the same time, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation reports that Vessel Trip Reports filled out by the state’s party and charter boats say that just 12,309 striped bass—a mere five percent of the landings estimated by NMFS—were landed by their customers in that year.

Comparable numbers for last year were similar; NMFS said that the for-hires landed 125,558 fish, while the for-hires themselves claimed just 6,477—again, just 5% of the NMFS number.

It’s impossible to say for certain which number is right, or even which is closer to the truth.  But just think about this:

Last July, Montauk experienced a spectacular run of big striped bass.  During that run, passengers on Montauk party and charter boats had no problem limiting out with bass weighing from 20 to more than 50 pounds.  

If just three party boats, carrying only 30 passengers each and making just one trip each day, limited out for a week, they would have landed 1,260 stripers—landing, in just one week, nearly one-fifth of all striped bass reported on all vessel trip reports filed by all of the state’s party and charter boats for the entire year.

Given that the run lasted for much more than one week, and that the 1,260-bass estimate was for only three party boats, didn’t include any fish caught by Montauk’s large and active charter boat fleet, and didn’t include striped bass caught by for-hire vessels running out of any other New York port at any other time of the year—including South Shore ports which, from Staten Island to Shinnecock, also enjoyed an excellent spring run of big bass feeding on menhaden—the notion that New York’s for-hires killed fewer than 6,500 striped bass all season just doesn’t seem credible.

That’s why VTR data, and any other self-reported information, should always be viewed with a jaundiced eye.

Many captains just don’t feel that it’s in their interests to diligently report every fish killed on their boat.

Consider the infamous case of a New Jersey party boat that came into port a few years ago with 819 illegal (out-of-season) black sea bass on board.  When a local paper asked the captain whether he knew that the fish were there, he said that he knew that a few were being kept, but

“I didn’t think it was that many.  And I’m not getting paid by the state of New Jersey to take fish out of people’s buckets.”
So what do you think his Vessel Trip Report would have included?  Perhaps 5% of the fish that were actually killed?

And yet, in their thankfully-defeated effort to open January and February, when NMFS data is not collected in the northeast, to black sea bass fishing, the party boats argued that a lack of harvest data should not hinder the opening, because NMFS could rely on the data reported in their VTRs.

The for-hire fleet loves to question NMFS’ data, which everyone has to admit falls short of perfection.  However, the accuracy of the for-hires’ data, provided on VTRs and elsewhere, is also open to question.

At least the NMFS data, with all of its flaws, is collected by objective surveyors, with no interest in how it is used; there will always be a temptation for anglers and for-hire captains to “accidently” misreport landings in an attempt to engineer a desired result.

Which means that managers should always be leery of accepting electronic catch reports and other data provided by for-hires and anglers, unless there is a protocol in place to objectively ground-truth that data and assure that no creative accounting appears.

For whether we’re talking about nuclear fission or party boat fishing, “Trust, but verify” remains good advice.

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