Friday, April 17, 2015


This week, the National Marine Fisheries Service announced that it will subject it not-yet-finalized Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP) to National Research Council review.

The action was taken on the advice of MRIP’s Executive Steering Committee, an 11-person panel made up of scientists, fisheries managers and recreational spokesmen charged with keeping the developing MRIP on track to accurately estimate the landings of America’s recreational anglers.

It’s a sensible move.  MRIP’s development got underway after a National Research Council review of its predecessor, the Marine Recreational Fishing Statistics Survey, found that MRFSS was not able to provide the sort of accurate and timely information needed for the quota management of recreational fisheries.  By reviewing MRIP now, when the program is just being implemented, protocols can be modified before institutional inertia sets in; needed changes can be made as a normal and non-disruptive part of the implementation process.

National Research Council review at this point would make it easy to make any course corrections necessary to keep MRIP on track.

Unfortunately, that prudent action by MRIP’s Executive Steering Committee is already being spun by the usual opponents of science-based management, who try to impeach any tool that NMFS might use to restrict recreational landings.

Comments of New Jersey Congressman Frank Pallone, who has long tried to weaken the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act with so-called “flexibility” legislation, are typical.  Congressmen Pallone, like many of the extreme “anglers’ rights” advocates in his home state, has long been suspicious of both MRFSS and MRIP, and sought legislation requiring National Research Council review of MRIP in the last Congress.

Pallone’s motivation for his actions, as stated in a recent press release, was his supposed concern

“that problems in this program have led to reduced fishing opportunities for recreational anglers and [his desire] to make sure they receive fair treatment.”
Implicit in that statement was the MRIP was overstating recreational fishing mortality, leading to unduly restrictive harvest regulations and thus having an “unfair” impact on anglers.

It’s about what we always hear when someone criticizes the accuracy of MRIP or similar programs.

There is always the assumption that recreational fishermen caught fewer fish than MRIP numbers suggest, but that is not always the case.  It is just as likely that anglers caught more fish than the estimates say.

Folks also tend to think that catching more fish is bad, and will always lead to greater restrictions on anglers.  While that can be true, higher recreational landings can also be signs of a more abundant or more resilient population of fish, and lead to more liberal regulations.

For evidence of that, just take a look at red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico. 

For many years, anglers argued that their harvest was being overestimated, and that “fatally flawed” MRFSS harvest estimates were leading to overly strict regulations.  It turned out that they were half-right, but not in the way that they expected.

The people who gathered MRFSS data kept business hours; they generally went home by 5:00 p.m. or so.  As a result, they were no longer on the docks surveying anglers when most of the boats fishing far out in the Gulf returned for the day, and thus failed to record the red snapper harvested by the anglers on board.

Once NMFS replaced the MRFSS data-gathering process with the new MRIP methodology, surveyors were required to collect data throughout the day.  Thus, some were occasionally on the dock when the longer-ranged boats came back in, and they captured the red snapper landings that earlier surveyors had missed.

So the anglers who claimed the MRFSS numbers were “bad” were correct, but not in the way they expected; recreational red snapper landings were actually higher than NMFS had believed.

But that was not a bad thing.

“When they recalibrated the landings from previous years, it showed that more fish were caught than they had previously estimated.  It’s interesting how the model works.  When it showed more fish were caught in the past, they looked at how the stock is still doing with those increased removals, which shows that the stock is healthier.”
Thus, the folks who complained when they thought that MRFSS was overestimating harvest had the whole thing wrong; a higher level or removals, coupled with a steadily increasing stock, actually paved the way for an increased harvest.  

Had the anglers been proved right, and actual landings were lower than what MRFSS had shown, their landings would have likely been cut back, instead.

That being the case, it’s interesting that Alabama has now implemented its own program for counting red snapper, and that the state survey’s estimates reinforce the idea that NMFS overestimates red snapper landings.  Picking up on the state survey’s results, Alabama’s angling press has repeatedly printed headlines similar to one in which trumpeted

“Alabama red snapper reporting program shows feds grossly overestimated state’s June landings.”
When a writer follows up on such a headline by saying

“Since landings estimates play a major role in determining subsequent recreational quotas, overestimating the catch ultimately lead to unwarranted reductions in season length,”
it becomes all too clear that he doesn’t understand all of the ways that landings data impacts the red snapper population model. 

While it is true that landings data is used to set seasons, it is also true, as Blankenship explained, that a population’s reaction to fishing mortality—in this case, recreational fishing mortality that was higher than originally believed—is also considered when assessing that population’s health, and the level of fishing mortality that it can safely endure.

Thus, if the proponents of the Alabama survey got their way, and estimates of recreational harvest were adjusted downward in response to that survey’s results—effectively undoing the upward adjustment in recreational landings estimates made in response to the MRIP data—they might very well be shooting themselves in the foot by convincing managers that the red snapper stock is not as healthy as they had hoped, and that the recreational catch limit needs to be sharply adjusted downward.

It’s one of those times that they really should be careful about what they’re asking for, because they might get it…

That’s a lesson there that everyone, on every coast, needs to learn. 

NMFS’ request that the National Research Council examine the MRIP program is a prudent move to review MRIP while it is still a work in progress, when changes can be more easily made without disrupting data-gathering and evaluation process.

It is not an admission that the program is flawed, or overestimates harvest; it is not evidence that critics of MRIP are right and kills should be upped as a matter of course.

And as the red snapper example shows, those who seek larger harvests should proceed with caution, and not try to mold or spin information provided to MRIP.  Population models are not always intuitive, and efforts to “shape” the data inputs may yield a result very different from the one the "shaper" sought.

In the end, the best interests of both anglers and the fish we pursue lies in an MRIP survey that provides the most accurate and unbiased data that humans can reasonably provide, a survey which is never viewed as a finished project, but rather continues to evolve to meet changing conditions and new management needs.

The upcoming National Research Council review is an important step in getting us there.

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