Sunday, January 3, 2016


If you pay any attention to fishery management issues (and if you’re reading this blog, it’s pretty clear that you do), you know that one of the most contentious issues, which comes up year after year, is the estimate of recreational landings.

Commercial landings are pretty easy to measure, because commercial fishermen, as well as the processors and packing houses that purchase their products, are generally required to report such landings on a timely basis.  To be sure, there are holes in the process.  Some fail to report, some report late and some fish are sold outside of formal channels of distribution.  Illegal landings and fish sales occur.  But on the whole, commercial landings are reported and recorded in something not too far from real time, and management based on those reports is pretty reliable.

But when it comes to recreational landings, it’s not that easy.  There are thousands of commercial fishermen on the coast; there are millions of anglers.  Commercial fishermen tend to land a lot of fish at the same time, and do so at fish buyers’ docks and in other, predictable locations.  Anglers land their fish in ones and twos—sometimes in dozens—along every part of the coast; some are caught from the banks of tidal creeks in the dark of night, others are landed at busy marinas and still others at private docks in the anglers’ backyards.

There are few real-time reporting requirements for recreational fishermen, but at least one that does exist—recreational reporting of bluefin tuna—is typically ignored.  And it is physically and economically impossible to physically interview every angler at the end of every trip.

As a result, fisheries managers have had to devise ways to estimate recreational landings, based on  creel surveys that provide data on catch frequency and composition, coupled with telephone surveys that provide a window on angler effort.  Such effort, called the Marine Recreational Fisheries Statistics Survey, or “MRFSS,” represented a supposedly statistically valid means to obtain such landings data.

Like all estimates derived from surveys, those derived from MRFSS included some inherent level of error.  Such error was fairly insignificant when the survey was used to measure then overall harvest of a commonly-encountered species along the entire coast over the course of a year.  However, when managers used MRFSS to gauge the landings of species that is not caught very often, and/or tried to limit the scope of the survey by state, time period or recreational sector (e.g., shore angler, party boat angler, etc.), the level of error increased significantly, sometimes rendering the estimate practically unusable.

And that was a problem, because as managers began to rebuild overfished stocks, and rebuilding plans required strict regulation of all fishermen, including anglers, MRFSS’ inherent errors became both a practical and a political problem.

MRFSS became the favorite whipping boy of any member of the angling community who wanted to kill a few too many fish, but was prevented from doing so by regulations based, in part, on the MRFSS numbers.  The recreational fishing industry, which generally saw rebuilding programs as a threat to current profits, were particularly vehement.  Comments made by the Save the Summer Flounder Fishery Fund were typical:

“Despite the degree of economic downturn in the USA, the unprecedented amount of inclement weather this past summer, and by almost all accounts, a general downturn in angler participation, the Marine Recreational Fisheries Statistics Survey (MRFSS) has determined that increasingly significant landings of Summer Flounder have occurred!  The MRFSS data also shows effort and participation numbers at odds with first hand industry observations!
“This information is completely contrary to evidence gathered by marine fisheries businesses up and down the coast.”

And in truth, MRFSS estimates were somewhat flawed due to biases that had become part of the system, a fact confirmed by a National Academy of Sciences review.

So the National Marine Fisheries Service set out to overhaul the process of estimating recreational harvest, with the eventual goal of replacing MRFSS with a new methodology called the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP).

At this point, MRIP remains a work in progress.  That is mainly because NMFS is being very careful to get it right, and avoid making the sort of mistakes that it made with MRFSS.  MRIP is being phased in over a period of years, and NMFS has asked that it be reviewed by the National Research Council before it is fully implemented to detect any problems before they infect the data.

Thus, both fisheries managers and anglers on every coast of the United States were getting close to enjoying the benefits of a robust catch estimate system—until the red snapper anglers down in the Gulf of Mexico intervened.

The intervention didn’t take place because the red snapper anglers had a problem with MRIP, which is actually leading to higher estimates of acceptable biological catch and maximum sustainable yield (although they have encouraged states to create their own surveys to challenge NMFS’ numbers).  

Instead, they convinced Alabama Republican Richard Shelby, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, to insert language into the Omnibus budget bill that would hold money for MRIP’s full implementation hostage, not permitting its expenditure until the red snapper anglers get a stock assessment that they approve.

Now, it’s not as if red snapper have not already been assessed.  

The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council conducted a benchmark stock assessment in 2013, and issued an 1,100 page report summarizing its findings. 

The Data Workshop, which provided the information on which such assessment was based, included a 30-person panel composed of individuals from federal and state fishery management bodies, as well as the private sector, and considered a trove of information that included 33 papers produced solely for the workshop, as well as 50 other reference papers that explored aspects of the Gulf’s red snapper population. 

The conclusions reached in the stock assessment were peer reviewed by a panel of independent experts, and updated in 2015.

The stock assessment clearly represents the best available science.  However, Gulf red snapper anglers don’t want an assessment that represents the best available science, they want an assessment that lets them kill more fish.

Thus, they prevailed upon Senator Shelby to pass a law requiring NMFS to conduct an assessment that places emphasis on artificial reefs and oil rigs where red snapper congregate, and thus is likely to edge population estimates—and harvests—substantially upward, whether such estimates are scientifically valid or not.

And want to hold up MRIP implementation until they get their way.

The saddest thing may be that they’re proud of what they’re doing.  In a press release issued by the Coastal Conservation Association on December 16, Pat Murray, CCA’s President, is quoted as saying

“It is impossible to get the red snapper fishery back on a course that makes sense for the angling public under the current broken federal management system…We are fortunate to have Sen. Shelby not only recognize the systemic problems, but begin fixing this frustrating situation.”

Murray wasn’t alone in his sentiments.  Senator Shelby’s actions were also praised by the American Sportfishing Association and the Center for Coastal Conservation, among other organizations. 

In endorsing such outrageous disruption of needed federal recreational data improvements, in the name of solving a single, parochial problem, they have all essentially flipped the bird and issued a big “Screw You!” to anglers in the rest of the nation who fish for cod, haddock, winter flounder, summer flounder, black sea bass, bluefish, weakfish, scup, striped bass, red drum, speckled trout, king mackerel or any other species that is dependent upon good recreational harvest estimates for its management.

Shortly after I started writing this blog two years ago, I posted a piece called “Red Snapper Anglers Embarrass Us All,” which remains the single most popular essay that I have written; each week, a few folks still read it.  It describes how the Gulf’s red snapper anglers, and their selfish political machinations, cast discredit on all of America’s recreational fishermen.

But that piece is now a little passé. 

With this latest effort to deny the rest of America’s anglers the benefit of accurate data estimates and the sort of good fisheries management that such estimates bring, the Gulf red snapper anglers, or at least its self-centered core and the organizations which represent them, who are willing to bring down the federal fisheries management system just so they can score some sort of Pyrrhic victory against NMFS and the Gulf of Mexico Council, have now demonstrated themselves to be not just an embarrassment, but an actual threat, to responsible anglers and angler-related businesses on every coast.

It is disappointing to see how far once-reasonable folks have fallen.

But today, that’s just the way things are.


  1. "Best Available Data" doesn't ensure one is using the "BEST DATA" in the decision making process.

    It could be totally irrelevant and stll be labelled "best available data".

  2. Which is a good argument against Shelby blocking efforts to make the process better.

    Although the most interesting thing is that the people who attack the data rarely have better data to offer in its place