Big Change Coming in Recreational Landings Data

Mid-Atlantic Bluefish

For many years, anglers and businesses critical of recreational fishing regulations have focused their ire on the Marine Recreational Fisheries Statistics Survey (MRFSS) and on MRFSS’ successor, the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP), claiming that the landings estimates those surveys produced were very inaccurate and did not truly reflect recreational harvest.

Their criticisms of MRFSS found some support in a 2006 study, Review of Recreational Fisheries Survey Methods, which was conducted by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). It determined that “Both the telephone and access components of [MRFSS] have serious flaws in design or implementation and use inadequate analysis methods that need to be addressed immediately.”

The NAS study’s findings caused the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to develop MRIP, a program designed to provide much more accurate estimates of recreational harvest.

A NAS review of MRIP, released early in 2017, declared that NMFS had made “significant improvements in gathering information through redesigned surveys, strengthening the quality of data.” Although MRIP represents a big jump forward in recreational data collection, the NAS report noted that “some challenges remain, such as incorporating technological advances for data collection and enhancing communication with anglers and some other stakeholders.”

That wasn’t the news that some anglers’ rights organizations wanted to hear. They had long opposed NMFS’ regulations by arguing that the harvest data underlying such rules were bad. Thus, they tried to spin NAS’ generally favorable report, distorting its message in an attempt to argue that MRIP data, too, was unreliable. The overall thrust of their message was that MRFFS, and now MRIP, provided estimates that overstated recreational harvest, and led to unnecessarily restrictive regulations.

On or about July 2, 2018, those organizations, and the people who believed their message, will be very disappointed, as that is when NMFS plans to announce new data that will demonstrate that MRFSS and MRIP catch estimates actually underestimated recreational harvest to a very significant degree.

To understand why that’s the case, it’s important to first understand how recreational catch estimates are made.

MRIP is actually comprises two different surveys. Data related to what anglers’ catch is gleaned from the Access-Point Angler Intercept Survey, in which anglers are interviewed at randomly selected private-boat docks, boat liveries and shore-fishing spots (anglers fishing from party and charter boats have their catch information recorded in a separate For-Hire Survey), where their catch can be identified, counted and measured.

Information on how often anglers go fishing is generated by a separate survey. For many years, that was the so-called Coastal Household Telephone Survey (CHTS), which employed random-digit dialing to call households in coastal counties, determine whether anyone in that household fished and, if they did, determine how many salt water fishing trips they had made in the previous two months.

The calculated mean catch per interviewed angler was then multiplied by the estimated number of trips made; the product of those two numbers was the estimated recreational landings for each two-month “wave.”

Studies conducted in recent years have revealed that the CHTS was significantly flawed, and that replacing it with a mail survey would allow surveyors to reach more anglers, achieve higher response rates and eliminate much of the error caused when anglers misremembered the number of trips they actually made. Such studies determined that effort by private boat anglers is 2.9 times higher, and effort by shore-based anglers is 5.9 times higher, than the CHTS suggested.

That means that the actual recreational harvest was much higher than previously estimated, too, although precisely how much higher will depend upon the particular fishery, the state where the survey occurred and the time of year when each survey was made.

Many anglers may immediately fear that higher estimates of recreational harvest will lead to increased restrictions on anglers. While that may be true in some cases, the actual impact of the updated estimates will vary from stock to stock. Dr. Ned Cyr, Director of the Office of Science and Technology for NMFS, has noted that “the first step is to incorporate the calibrated data into stock assessments,” and that “recreational effort and catch estimates are just two factors” that go into such assessments.

Once that’s done, according to Dr. Cyr, “We anticipate that those stocks with a higher proportion of recreational fishing could potentially see larger impacts such as changes to stock status, annual catch limits, and possibly allocations, depending on council actions.” He acknowledged that the new estimates could impact stock assessments that are conducted as early as the second half of 2018.

That means that things on the management front are about to get very interesting, as stock assessments for some important and often controversial recreational species, including summer flounder, striped bass and Atlantic cobia are scheduled for late this year. There are also some pending management actions that could be very significantly impacted by the new numbers.

From an angler’s standpoint, summer flounder may prove to be the most interesting case. The stock, once badly overexploited, has since recovered, although it has never achieved the biomass target. Overfishing has occurred in recent years, largely due to consecutive years of below-average spawning success leading to a sharp decline in abundance. Add in increased angling effort, and so an increased recreational harvest, and many things might occur.

The first thing that may well happen is that the higher estimates of recreational harvest will force fishery managers to revise the size of the fluke population upward.

That might seem counterintuitive to many fishermen, who would think that any data showing that more fish had been landed would also show that there were fewer fish left in the sea. But that’s not exactly how population models work.

Biologists often estimate the size of fish populations by employing a technique known as “virtual population analysis” (VPA). It works much like a bank account, using estimates of income (fish recruited into the population) and expenses (fish removed from the population by fishing or natural mortality) to determine population size. But there’s a twist to VPAs, in that the size of a fish population is calculated backwards. That is, biologists use the number of fish caught, combined with estimates of recruitment and natural mortality, to determine how large a population must have been in the past to support the known volume of landings.

Thus, if the revised harvest estimates show that anglers caught more summer flounder than biologists had originally believed, such higher landings would imply that the population must also have been larger than previously thought. Otherwise, the population wouldn’t have been able to support such a high level of landings for as many years as it had.

That reassessment of the population size could, in turn, also lead to a corresponding increase in the annual catch limit. At the same time, daily bag limits, or other regulations, could become more restrictive, to account for the higher estimates of recreational effort.

Both allocation and any new regulations could also be affected by a change in the way fish are allocated. The current allocation, which grants 40% of the overall catch limit to the recreational sector and 60% to commercial fishermen, was based on harvest estimates for the years 1980-1989. Should revised effort data lead to significantly higher recreational harvest estimates for those years, it is likely that representatives of the recreational fishing sector will push the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC) to revise the allocation accordingly. However, there is no guarantee that any such revision would be adopted; allocation debates are notoriously bitter and divisive, and rarely result in significant change, even when the objective evidence for such change seems strong.

Updated effort and landings estimates might be more successfully used to prevent the reallocation of bluefish from the recreational to the commercial sector.

The MAFMC, acting in conjunction with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), have recently initiated an amendment to the bluefish management plan, which contemplates just such an action, based on the belief that anglers have not been harvesting their full bluefish quota while, at the same time, commercial fishermen are seeking ways to increase their landings. Should the updated data demonstrate that anglers are landing more bluefish than fishery managers had believed, as appears almost certain, the rationale for any such reallocation would be undermined.

Increased estimates of recreational harvest, arising out of the revised effort data, may also have a significant impact on the striped bass debate now unfolding at the ASMFC.

The objectives of ASMFC’s current striped bass management plan include, among others, to “Manage fishing mortality to maintain an age structure that provides adequate spawning potential to sustain long-term abundance of striped bass populations,” and “Establish a fishing mortality target that will result in a net increase in the abundance (pounds) of age 15 and older striped bass in the population, relative to the 2000 estimate.”

Such objectives require a relatively conservative management approach, but at a recent meeting of ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board (Management Board), some Management Board members argued that current management measures were too conservative.

At the following meeting, the Management Board instructed the biologists performing the upcoming stock assessment to consider a range of management options, including those that would allow a higher level of striped bass harvest, and a relaxation of current regulations.

If updated estimates reveal that recreational striped bass harvest, which already accounts for more than two-thirds of all striped bass landings, is much higher than the Management Board had thought, current management may be far less conservative than previously believed, making it more difficult to justify further relaxing existing regulations.

Thus, there are many possible implications of the upcoming release of revised recreational effort and landings data. While the new and more accurate data will permit more effective regulation and management of salt water fish stocks, and allow fishery managers to better ensure such stocks’ long-term health, it is impossible to predict precisely what impact they will have on any particular fishery.

But it is easy to predict that some things will change.

About Charles Witek

Charles Witek is an attorney, salt water angler and blogger. Read his work at One Angler’s Voyage.

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