NOAA’s Turn: Agency Weighs In on Marine Recreational Information Program

Recreational anglers in the Mid-Atlantic region

Photo by John McMurray

When the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act (Act) was passed in 2018, it included the provision that

The Secretary [of Commerce] shall, within 90 days after the date of the enactment of the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2018, enter into an agreement with the National Academy of Sciences to evaluate, in the form of a report, how the design of the Marine Recreational Information Program, for the purposes of stock assessment and the determination of stock management reference points, can be improved to better meet the needs of in-season management of annual catch limits…and what actions the Secretary, [regional fishery management] Councils, and States could take to improve the accuracy and timeliness of data collection and analysis to improve the Marine Recreational Information Program and facilitate in-season management; and within 6 months after releasing [such] report…submit to Congress recommendations regarding changes to be made to the Marine Recreational Information Program to make the program better meet the needs of in-season management of catch limits and other requirements under such section; and alternative management approaches that could be applied to recreational fisheries for which the Marine Recreational Information Program is not meeting the needs of in-season management of annual catch limits… [internal formatting omitted]

The National Academy of Sciences issued the report called for in the Act, Data and Management Strategies for Recreational Fisheries with Annual Catch Limits (NAS Report), in 2021. In February 2023, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) released the required Report to Congress, in which the agency addressed the NAS Report’s recommendations.

There were twelve such recommendations, which could be grouped into five broad categories: 1) Improving the timeliness and precision of MRIP; 2) Calibrating the data provided by the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP) with that provided by ancillary surveys; 3) Considering provisions that would allow fishery managers to roll over the uncaught portion of the recreational catch limit into succeeding years; 4) Reviewing the National Standard 1 guidelines; and 5) Engaging recreational stakeholders to discuss the concept of “optimum yield.”

Despite such recommendations, the NAS Report and Report to Congress won’t necessarily have a substantial impact on MRIP, since the Act called for both to focus on “in-season management of annual catch limits,” and as the Report to Congress observed, “In-season management is not required for most fisheries nationwide due to broad regional diversity in management needs.” At the same time, many of the recommendations are applicable to any recreational fishery, and not merely to those requiring in-season management, and so may be applied more broadly.

Improving MRIP

That is particularly true of recommendations that would improve the timeliness and accuracy of MRIP estimates. However, the NAS Report made it clear that, while MRIP provides “critically important” data to fishery managers, and offered suggestions for improving the quality of such data, there were practical limitations to such improvements.

Currently, MRIP provides catch and landings estimates broken down into two-month “waves.” Preliminary data from each wave is customarily made available about forty-five days after the wave’s end. The NAS Report notes that MRIP could provide data of equivalent quality on a monthly basis, but that it would require “an approximate doubling of the resources…allocated to its survey programs” in order to do so.

The NAS Report also found that, if provided with additional resources, MRIP could provide preliminary estimates for each two-month wave about two weeks sooner than it does today, but that doing so “would put additional stress on existing MRIP staff and systems,” and noted that “for purposes of in-season management, the benefits of a modest advance in the release of preliminary estimates for bimonthly waves would not be likely to justify the costs of accelerating the data processing and estimation phases of each bimonthly cycle.”

NMFS’ responses in the Report to Congress were in general accord with the NAS Report’s findings, although the agency suggested that such report might have overestimated the cost of reporting recreational data on a monthly, rather than bimonthly, basis. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which was also invited to comment on the NAS Report, proposed reducing the costs of monthly data reports by limiting such reports to the months of May through October, when angling activity was greatest, and relying on bimonthly reporting for the rest of the year.

Regardless of the improvements that might be made to MRIP itself, the NAS Report highlights the benefits of supplementing MRIP with data from other sources. One suggestion, that has parallels in the management of some game birds and mammals pursued by hunters, is that managers issue tags which must be affixed to harvested fish; another is that anglers participating in NMFS-managed fisheries obtain permits that would make it easier to identify and survey such anglers.

While the former approach may appear attractive, the Report to Congress made it clear that it was disfavored by NMFS, which stated that “Harvest tags have been widely considered for in-season management, but only attempted at the Federal level for various Atlantic [highly migratory species] and at the state level in Louisiana. In those instances, they were unsuccessful due to costs, underreporting, and noncompliance.”

Requiring permits for anglers fishing in federal waters received a slightly warmer response, with NMFS noting, “A variety of license endorsements have been successful in some specific cases (e.g., Atlantic [highly migratory species], and Louisiana’s LA Creel), but may be difficult to implement at large scales due to high potential for bias and burden on state and regional staff. [references omitted]” NMFS expressed a willingness to consider such permits, on a case-by-case basis, if recommended by a regional fishery management council.

The agency was much more receptive to the recommendation that MRIP be supplemented with surveys conducted by states, regional fishery management commissions, or other entities. The Report to Congress noted that “NMFS and partners indicate that this recommendation is being implemented in the Atlantic, Gulf, and West Coast regions…NMFS further felt that management needs of regional or Council-managed species would best be met by ensuring new supplemental surveys truly supplement MRIP, meaning that they are designed to be statistically comparable and compatible with existing MRIP estimates…”

Calibrating Data

Such comment leads directly to what may be the most controversial issue addressed in the NAS Report: The need to calibrate supplemental surveys to make them compatible with MRIP.

It has been a hot topic in the Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery, which is one of the few recreational fisheries where in-season management comes into play. NMFS has agreed to give each state a share of the overall recreational harvest, along with some latitude to adopt its own red snapper season, size limit, and bag limit, with the understanding that a state’s season will close once its recreational quota is landed. Each state has developed its own recreational data collection program to track red snapper landings.

The problem is that each of the state data programs uses a different methodology than that used by MRIP or any of the other states, so none of the state catch estimates are directly comparable to any other set of data. That doesn’t matter for Florida or Louisiana, as their estimates are similar to MRIP’s, but it is causing some trouble in Alabama and Mississippi, where state estimates are far lower than those made by MRIP, causing anglers to overfish such states’ quotas. NMFS has calibrated Alabama and Mississippi’s estimates to be compatible with MRIP, but because that has led to smaller state quotas in 2023, anglers in those states are opposing NMFS’ efforts.

Such issues are reflected in the NAS Report’s comment, “Compared with MRIP surveys, alternative or supplemental surveys have been shown to provide different estimates for recreational catches for the same fishery (stock and area). Differences between estimates can be moderate, or quite substantial.” They are also reflected in the comment that “Public perceptions of differences between MRIP and alternative surveys in methodology, final catch estimates, and the precision of the estimates are a source of consternation among anglers, fisheries managers, and other stakeholders.”

In response to such comments, the Report to Congress states that, as one might expect, NMFS will continue to work with its fishery management partners to calibrate MRIP and any supplemental surveys. Where the estimates produced by MRIP and such surveys are “significantly” different, NMFS intends, “subject to availability of funds,” to investigate the cause of such differences, “with particular emphasis on determining the nature and extent of non-sampling error;” make changes that address the source of such non-sampling error; recommend and provide technical support for its fishery management partners’ research into the sources of error in supplemental surveys; and continue to educate such partners and stakeholders with respect to “information about sources of survey error and the basis and need for calibration.”

The importance of the latter step cannot be underestimated, for even if all the sources of error in the surveys are addressed, without adequate public outreach and education, stakeholders will still be vulnerable to various parties’ efforts to undercut faith in the data collection and calibration process, in order to achieve political goals.

The NAS Report and the Report to Congress address many other technical issues related to calibrating catch estimates and improving the accuracy and timeliness of MRIP, at a scale too fine to be discussed in further detail. Fortunately, the other items included in the reports can be summarized more easily.

Improving Recreational Management

The possibility of rolling over the uncaught portion of an annual catch limit, in whole or in part, so that it may be landed in a subsequent season, is a question that sometimes arises in regional fishery management council deliberations. The NAS Report notes that such rollovers “could allow the recreational sector to achieve a high level of [annual catch limit] utilization in a way that would be both practical and cost-effective while reducing risks of extreme overages and subsequent payback.”

While that comment isn’t wrong, such rollovers may not be appropriate in every circumstance, particularly in fisheries for species where achieving “a high level of [annual catch limit] utilization” is not necessarily anglers’ primary goal. NMFS, in its Report to Congress, states that it has developed guidance relating to such rollover provisions, and further states, “The implementation of carry-over provisions must be done on a fishery-by-fishery basis, and regionally, NMFS and partners indicated the use of carry-over provisions have only been successful in specific cases.”

Thus, while regional fishery management councils may consider such rollovers when circumstances warrant, they probably won’t appear in too many management plans.

The NAS Report also recommended that “NMFS should review the National Standard 1 guidelines to assure that agency guidance with respect to recreational accountability measures aligns with the timeliness and precision of harvest estimates produced by MRIP.” NMFS replied that it has already done so, stating in its Report to Congress that “NMFS has reviewed the National Standard 1 guidelines and believes that they provide the flexibility to develop [accountability measures] that are appropriate, given the precision and timing of NMFS estimates.”

NMFS goes on to state that it supports the regional fishery management council’s efforts to craft appropriate accountability measures, and that it believes that the current National Standard 1 guidelines provide sufficient flexibility to allow such councils to do so.

What the NAS Report didn’t recommend, but perhaps should have, is that NMFS actually follow the National Standard 1 guidelines that it develops. Very few of the annual specifications developed by the regional fishery management councils include the annual catch targets recommended in the guidelines to account for management uncertainty, much of which is directly related to “the timeliness and precision of harvest estimates produced by MRIP” specifically referenced in the NAS Report.

Finally, the Report to Congress responds to a NAS Report recommendation that “NMFS and the Councils should develop a process for engaging recreational fisheries stakeholders in a more in-depth discussion of optimum yield and how it can be used to identify and prioritize management objectives that are better suited to the cultural, economic, and conservation goals of the angling community.” Such recommendation raises an issue too often ignored by fisheries managers.

However, the NAS Report seemed to conflate the concept of setting an optimum yield with the precise monitoring of recreational catch limits, something that the Report to Congress noted was “not directly related to optimum yield, but raise[s] additional, separate considerations.” More relevant to the optimum yield issue, NMFS provided a “Proposed Course of Action,” that “NMFS continued the discussion of optimum yield at the National Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Summit in March 2022, and will develop further courses of action related to this recommendation, as needed.”

In view of that response, it’s worthwhile to note how the final report from the Summit described such discussion of optimum yield. It describes how Mike Leonard, Vice President of Government Affairs for the American Sportfishing Association, observed that federal fisheries law permits setting annual catch limits below maximum sustainable yield when other social and economic factors are considered, but that

this has not been put into practice by most [regional fishery management] councils. A review and analysis of the use of [optimum yield] in U.S. fisheries management found that current [annual catch limit] and [optimum yield] specifications processes rarely account for social and economic factors, or ecosystem considerations, and if they do, it is on an ad-hoc, species-specific basis.

Catch and release is being viewed as underutilizing the resource just because they are catching below the [annual catch limits]. This may drive a desire to transfer allocation [from the recreational to the commercial sector].

It also described how recreational stakeholders present at the Summit seconded Mr. Leonard’s sentiments, talking about the “intrinsic value” of recreational fishing that can’t be represented merely in economic terms, or in pounds of dead fish; one group of anglers highlighted the “economic value of fish left in the water, understanding what satisfaction means to different stakeholders,” and “what the values are for a particular fishery.”

Yet, when regional fishery management councils consider optimum yield, to the extent that they consider it at all, their emphasis is consistently on just the “yield,” the number of fish that may be killed and retained, rather than on the “optimum.” Managing a primarily recreational stock for abundance and its recreational value remains an alien concept; when the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council last amended its management plan for the bluefish fishery, a fishery where anglers are responsible for about 85% of the landings and release close to two-thirds of the bluefish that they catch, it eschewed any meaningful analysis of optimum yield, and instead included a provision that would transfer any “unused,” meaning “unharvested,” recreational quota to the commercial sector.

Thus, this issue, too, deserves NMFS’ attention.

In the end, the NAS Report, and NMFS’ Report to Congress, focused primarily on recreational data issues, and such issues are unquestionably important and in need of attention. But NMFS should not ignore the management issues; they are also important, and need attention, too.

About Charles Witek

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

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