Thursday, June 29, 2017


Dig down deep enough into any recreational fisheries debate, and you’ll come out at the same place—someone, somewhere, is arguing that the managers’ data is wrong, and that anglers either caught fewer fish than the managers believe (in which case more restrictive regulations aren’t needed) or caught more fish than such managers are willing to admit (and so should be given a larger allocation than their commercial counterparts).

Either way, the discussion eventually devolves to the point that folks start throwing stones at the National Marine Fisheries Service, and the Marine Recreational Information Program (usually referred to as “MRIP”) or its predecessor, the Marine Recreational Fishing Statistics Survey (called “MRFSS”).  In response, some angling organizations have urged that anglers provide data outside of the MRIP process in the hope of providing fishery managers with more accurate numbers.

“Obtaining quality estimates of recreational catch continues to be problematic for fisheries managers.  This trial project will investigate the feasibility of using catch data voluntarily reported by anglers through an innovative iPhone app to easily record catch information.”
The problem with a voluntary survey is that there is no way to know whether the folks who volunteer are representative of the entire angling community, in terms of what they catch, and where and how often they go fishing.  Intuitively, they probably are not, because the people most likely to participate in a volunteer program are more avid anglers with some interest in conservation and management, or long-time recreational fishermen who are trying to inject a new aspect into a sport that they had participated in for years.

New, less dedicated or less sophisticated anglers, who are looking for merely a relaxed day by the sea and/or maybe a meal, are less likely to complicate their outings with logbooks, smartphone apps and such.  Yet such people make up a big part of the angling public, and any survey that excluded them would yield very biased results.

Even so, recreational fishing organizations are trying hard to add angler-generated data to the suite of data used to manage federally-regulated fisheries.  One piece of legislation strongly supported by the angling industry and anglers’ rights community, H.R. 2023, the so-called Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2017, would require the Department of Commerce (which includes NMFS) to prepare a report

“on facilitating greater incorporation of data, analysis, stock assessments and surveys from State agencies and nongovernmental sources…into fisheries management decisions.”
One of the nongovernmental sources specifically mentioned was fishermen, despite the problems posed by biased data.

Managers are slowly learning that there’s another problem with using anglers in so-called “cooperative management” arrangements.  Anglers often refuse to cooperate.

This issue most recently raised its head in the Alabama red snapper fishery.

A few years ago, Alabama began to require its anglers to report red snapper landings upon returning to shore.  
According to one announcement,

“The captain or owner of a charter or private vessel with red snapper on board is required to report all red snapper kept and discarded dead prior to landing in Alabama, regardless of the location where the fish are caught.
“The state has provided multiple reporting options in order to make the reporting process easier for anglers.  Anglers can call 1-8440REDSNAP (733-7627) to utilize the IVR system.  Reports may be submitted by paper form at certain docks, online, and also through the Outdoor Alabama mobile application… [emphasis added]”
Already, the system seemed to be flawed, as its difficult to see how one may be able to submit a paper form prior to landing, but in the overall scheme of things, that was a minor problem.  

The bigger issue is that anglers aren’t reporting their catch.

A recent article in the Tuscaloosa News quotes Capt. Bo Willis, administrative captain for enforcement of the Alabama Marine Resources Division, who said that

“Charter boats we have good numbers for.  Commercial guys we have good numbers for. Private recreational fishermen are the variable.”
 That’s the case because most recreational fishermen aren’t complying with the law in Alabama, which requires them to report their catch.

According to the Tuscaloosa News,

“Last year, during the federal season, state officials believe only 31 percent of the anglers fishing for red snapper reported their catch through Snapper Check.  This year, they believe that number fell to only 21 percent, said Kevin Anson, a biologist with Marine Resources.
“The numbers are much worse for the state season when the federal season was out.  Last year, state officials believe only about 30 percent of anglers reported their catch through snapper check during the state season.  This year, that fell to an abysmal 7 percent.  [emphasis added]”
And that’s just catch reporting.  

Would anyone like to venture a guess as to how many anglers accurately report the number of fish discarded dead?  That’s a particular concern in a fishery where anglers commonly “highgrade,” first keeping their two-fish bag, then continuing to fish, throwing back a smaller red snapper—dead—when a larger one is brought aboard.

Thus, headlines that announce

ought to be taken with a grain of salt.

Yes, Alabama Snapper Check data may suggest that anglers caught only half as many snapper as estimated by MRIP.  On the other hand, MRIP employs a methodology intended to capture all landings, while Snapper Check’s methodology depends heavily on the whims of the anglers who may, or may not, choose to comply with the law, and who may or may not report accurate numbers, particularly with respect to dead discards.

So yes, MRIP figures contain some margin for error.  But how much error is inherent in Snapper Check, which saw only 7% of anglers choosing to comply during the state season?  With such a low compliance rate, can anyone truly believe that Snapper Check is more accurate than MRIP?

Again, the question remains.  Can managers trust angler reporting at all?

For many years, NMFS has required anglers who hold Angling-category Highly Migratory Species permits to report their Atlantic bluefin tuna landings within 24 hours.  Yet, when Capt. John McMurray interviewed NMFS officials five years ago in connection with an article that he was writing for Salt Water Sportsman, they told him that only about 20% of recreational bluefin tuna landings are reported.  I had a chance to speak to the same officials at a fishery conference a few years later, and they confirmed that the reporting percentage had not improved.

That being the case, the notion that angler-reported information will provide better data seems to have little support in the real world.

It certainly might lead to lower landings estimates, and that might be construed as “better” data if your goal is to relax regulations and put more dead fish on the dock.

But if you want effective, data-driven fisheries management, then angler-supplied data will always remain suspect, at least until there are enough incentives—interpret that “penalties”—in place to convince anglers that a failure to provide accurate and timely data is very much against their personal interests.

Without such incentives, there is little reason to believe that anglers' reports will be either accurate or timely.  

In fact, without such incentives, there's little reason to believe that most anglers will report at all.

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