National Academy of Sciences Praises Marine Recreational Information Program

Recreational anglers

Top photo courtesy John McMurray

Whenever fishery managers propose regulations that restrict anglers’ landings, someone will always complain that such rules are not needed, and challenge the data on which they are based.

While biological data, such as stock assessments, receive some criticism, most anglers’ rancor is reserved for the National Marine Fisheries Service’s (NMFS) estimates of the recreational catch.

Anglers, and the organizations that represent them, typically argue that recreational catch is overestimated, and that more accurate data would show that further regulation isn’t needed. However, sometimes anglers try to increase their share of the recreational/commercial allocation; then, they do an about-face, and claim that recreational harvest estimates understated landings, but only during the years used to calculate the recreational/commercial split.

Regardless of what they are trying to prove, opponents of recreational regulation have, for a very long time, routinely claimed that recreational harvest data was “flawed”, “obsolete“, “fatally flawed” and “unreliable.”

For many years, such criticisms may have been justified.

In 2006, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) reviewed the Marine Recreational Fishing Statistics Survey (MRFSS), and found that “the current methods used in the MRFSS for sampling the universe of anglers and for determining their catch and effort is inadequate.” It recommended that “The MRFSS…should be completely redesigned to improve its effectiveness and appropriateness of sampling and estimation procedures, its applicability to various kinds of management decisions, and its usefulness for social and economic analysis.”

NMFS took that recommendation to heart, and embarked on a multi-year effort to improve its recreational catch estimates. The result was the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP), which was designed to address MRFSS’ shortcomings.

In early 2016, NMFS requested that NAS review MRIP, to determine whether it had successfully overcome MRFSS’ problems. On January 10, 2017, NAS released a report of its findings.

A summary of those findings declares, “Work to redesign the National Marine Fisheries Service’s recreational fishery survey program (now referred to as the Marine Recreational Information Program) has yielded impressive progress over the past decade in providing more reliable data to fishery managers. Major improvements to the statistical soundness of the survey designs were achieved by reducing sources of bias and increasing sampling efficiency as well as through increased coordination with partners and engagement of expert consultants.”

MRIP, like MRFSS, incorporates two different surveys, one designed to measure angling effort, and one that intercepts anglers as they come in from fishing and records their actual catch. The NAS report concluded, “The methodologies associated with the current Fishing Effort Survey, including the address-based sampling mail survey design, are major improvements from the original Coastal Household Telephone Survey that employed random-digit-dialing to contact anglers.”

The report also found that “The new Access Point Angler Intercept Survey design [used to interview anglers and record their catch] is a substantial improvement on the MRFSS intercept survey methodologies.”
That was good news. Both legs of MRIP stood on solid ground.

The NAS report also pointed out that MRIP still needed some tweaking, noting that “Some additional challenges remain for the survey program, including those associated with nonresponse, electronic data collection and communication and outreach to some audiences.”

The report warned that the current practice of asking anglers to remember how many times they went fishing over the past two months to be vulnerable to lapses of memory, and recommended that NMFS consider approaches to minimize such problems, “such as asking people in advance to document fishing trips planned over the next two months, to reduce concerns about angler recall.” Collecting information through anglers’ use of electronic devices, such as smartphones, was also recommended, as a more efficient way to gather quality data.

Nonresponse to all or part of a survey, whether caused by anglers who refused to be interviewed, faced language barriers, or were missed by surveyors, also remains a problem. The report recommended that NMFS engage in “targeted annual nonresponse studies…to control its damaging effects on data quality.”

Yet, despite the report’s suggestions for some further improvements to MRIP, its general tone was undoubtedly positive. It confirmed that MRIP would provide fisheries managers with far better recreational landings data than they had ever received before.

That creates a problem for those who typically oppose any proposed restrictions on recreational harvest, and justify their opposition by citing NAS’ 2006 criticisms of MRFSS, since NAS’ most recent report makes it clear that MRIP has eliminated many of MRFSS’ former flaws.

Unfortunately, the early indications are that such opponents of data-based regulations will merely sidestep NAS’ positive comments, and seek new ways to discredit the data.

Shortly after the NAS report was released, the American Sportfishing Association (ASA), which represents the recreational fishing industry, placed an editorial in Sport Fishing magazine. Although it grudgingly admitted that “the NAS report is generally complimentary of progress made recently under MRIP,” ASA’s primary message was that MRIP remains “a system that is not capable of providing information…to the degree necessary to meet current statutory requirements.”

ASA didn’t provide any support for that conclusion. Instead, it was rooted in a simple comment in the NAS report which said that NMFS should “Evaluate whether the design of MRIP for the purposes of stock assessment and the determination of stock management reference points is compatible with the needs of in-season management of annual catch limits,” in order to address concerns previously expressed by “analysts, managers and stakeholders.”

ASA declared that “A full evaluation of this issue would almost certainly conclude what anglers have long known: The inability of MRIP to allow for in-season adjustments exposes one of the core flaws of the federal saltwater-fisheries-management system…NOAA Fisheries should look to the states for proven recreational-fisheries-management approaches that don’t constrain managers to attempt to enforce quotas in real time without the data to do so.”

Thus, ASA proposed that NMFS neither set quotas for recreational fishermen nor use MRIP data to determine whether such recreational fishermen were killing too many fish.

That might go over well with some anglers, who would enjoy less restrictive regulations. At least, they would enjoy them until fish stocks collapsed.

But over the long term, such an approach would do the fish, or the fishermen, no good at all.

Accurate data is a prerequisite for effective fisheries management. Guesses and politically expedient answers are not good enough.

The recent NAS report makes it clear that MRIP will go a long way toward putting accurate recreational catch data into managers’ hands.

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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