A Journey To The Unknown: Revised Recreational Catch Data

Recreational fishing

Photo by John McMurray

For many years, anglers have criticized estimates of recreational fish landings produced by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which are used by fishery managers to set seasons, bag limits and other regulations. Such anglers typically argue that NMFS overestimates recreational harvest, which results in unnecessary restrictions being placed on recreational fishermen.

The Jersey Coast Anglers’ Association expressed such an opinion in 2013, when it challenged the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s (ASMFC) proposed black sea bass management program, arguing, “It is obvious that the problem lies with an unrealistic harvest limit…and the continued reliance on the fatally flawed [Marine Recreational Fishing Statistical Survey] data which has not been significantly improved by the introduction of the new [Marine Recreational Information Program] system.”

About a year earlier, Jim Donofrio, Executive Director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance, also expressed concern about the data developed by the newly-adopted Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP), saying that “I would love to join the rest of the fishing community in celebrating the good times ahead, but if the [Marine Recreational Fishing Statistical Survey] staff is using the same effort and participation data coupled with inadequate intercept data generated over the past 33 years, then I’m not so sure that we’ve turned a corner instead of just running around in more circles.”

Such critics should have been pleased to learn that NMFS had similar concerns about the accuracy of its recreational catch and effort data. Beginning in 2008, it began exploring ways to improve the accuracy and the efficiency of its estimates. Finally, on July 9, 2018, NMFS announced revised recreational catch and effort estimates dating back to 1981.

That announcement was good news, because more accurate catch and effort estimates will lead to more accurate stock assessments; such assessments will, in turn, lead to more effective regulations that can better prevent overfishing, rebuild overfished stocks and keep fish stocks abundant and healthy in the long term.

Unfortunately, because the revised estimates indicated that the effort, and so the catch of anglers fishing from private boats and from shore (party and charter boats are covered by a different survey) was substantially higher than previously thought, some people didn’t wait to see the video before they declared that the sky was about to fall.

One well-known gadfly from the for-hire sector was quick to announce that “We’re About To Go WAY Over Quota in Almost Every Fishery (according to soon-worsening catch data) I Anticipate Many Recreational Fisheries Will See Closures [sic]…We’ll soon be so over quota, in every fishery, that our rod-racks will become wall-mounted spider farms long before we’re allowed to fish again.”

While such statements may serve to stir up discontent, they fall a very long way from the truth. They’re based on the false notion that higher recreational landings necessarily mean that anglers are overfishing, and that regulations will need to grow more restrictive, in order to get such overfishing under control. The truth is that, right now, no one really knows what the higher landings mean.

In announcing the revised catch and effort estimates , NMFS tried to reassure anglers, letting them know that “the increase in effort estimates is because the [Fishing Effort Survey (FES)] does a better job of estimating fishing activity, not a sudden rise in fishing…Implications of the revised estimates on all managed species will not be fully understood until they are incorporated into the stock assessment process over the next several years…In the meantime, the new FES data can be back calculated into the [previous estimates] to allow for an apples-to-apples comparison of catch estimates with management benchmarks, such as annual catch limits, that were based on the [earlier estimates]…”

So no, the revised estimates will not immediately cause anglers to exceed their catch limits and shut fisheries down. The higher catch numbers could even be viewed as good news, for as NMFS notes , “Because the number of fish being caught is an indicator of fishery health, if effort rates were actually higher in the past than we estimated, then it is possible we were underestimating the number of fish in the population to begin with.”

Whatever the implications of the new estimates, many anglers are probably curious as to why the revisions occurred, and why angling catch and effort estimates were revised upward. That is all explained in two NMFS videos , but the short version is this.

NMFS used to use something called the Coastal Household Telephone Survey (Telephone Survey) to estimate angling effort. It made calls to randomly-selected households in coastal counties, with no prior knowledge of whether or not anyone in such households was a recreational fisherman. The percentage of calls that successfully contacted an angler was relatively low, which limited the amount of data that could be obtained.

The Telephone Survey was replaced by the FES, which uses lists of registered salt water anglers, augmented by a United States Postal Service list of households to capture effort by anglers who are not on the registration lists, to mail out a hard-copy survey. Although it seems counterintuitive, such old-fashioned “snail mail” actually produces much better information.

That’s because, by addressing most of the surveys to registered anglers, NMFS is able to reach more recreational fishermen, and better assure that the surveys actually get into such fishermen’s hands. The combination of a better-targeted survey and an improved questionnaire led to response rate that was three times greater than the response to the Telephone Survey; in addition, responders provided more complete data.

In most surveys, higher response rates and improved data will lead to better results. The catch and effort estimates gleaned from the FES were no exception to that rule.

NMFS explains that there are two reasons why the revised catch and effort estimates are higher than those developed through the Telephone Survey.

The first, deemed the “Telephone vs. Mail Factor,” boils down to the fact that people respond differently to mail surveys, which they can answer thoughtfully and at their leisure, than they do to telephone calls, which demand immediate attention and require instant response. The second is what NMFS calls the “Wireless Effect.” It has been a factor since 2000, when the use of cellular phones became widespread enough to seriously limit the number of households reached through the random Telephone Survey; a developing trend of people with “landline” phones taking, on average, fewer fishing trips than those without landlines has made the Wireless Effect even more powerful in recent years.

Due to those two factors, the difference between the original and the revised catch estimates remained fairly constant from 1981 through 1999, when the Telephone vs. Mail Factor was the only consideration, and increased substantially after 2000, when the Wireless Effect also played a big role.

The revised estimates for shore-based anglers were roughly five times higher than those developed through the Telephone Survey; estimates for private-boat anglers did not quite triple, which remains a substantial increase.

Thus, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the species reflecting the greatest increases in landings include those that are most often caught from shore. Bluefish led the pack, with recent landings about four times as high as previously thought. Revised estimates for striped bass, another popular target for surfcasters, were three times higher than the earlier figures. Fish that are typically caught by boat fishermen, such as summer flounder, black sea bass, South Atlantic gag grouper, Gulf of Mexico red snapper, and Atlantic cod, showed revised catch estimates that are typically about 2 ½ times as high as estimates derived through the Telephone Survey.

NMFS doesn’t yet know what the new data means. It could impact the status of some stocks, some management measures, and the allocations between the commercial and recreational sectors. But it won’t necessarily lead to any of those things.

Until the revised estimates are incorporated into stock assessments, no one at NMFS is venturing any guesses about how the data will impact different species. It’s very possible that higher recreational harvest from some still-healthy stocks will demonstrate that such fish are more abundant and able to withstand more fishing pressure than previously believed, and will lead to higher catch limits. It’s also possible that higher recreational landings will at least partially explain why some stocks have never rebuilt to target levels, despite years of management efforts.

Anglers should get their first real indications of the revised estimates’ impact late in 2018, when benchmark stock assessments for striped bass and summer flounder are released. Assessment updates for a host of other species, including Gulf of Mexico red snapper, Atlantic cod, bluefish, black sea bass and scup, will follow shortly thereafter, and should provide additional insight.

Until the assessments come out, all that anglers can do is wait, learn about the new survey, and rest assured that the end of the world is not nigh.

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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