Ocean Currents

How Good Data Keeps America Fishing


A system upgrade that will help ensure there are plenty of fish in the sea. 

There are many ways to have a good day out on the water. The ocean gives us endless opportunities to find joy, exhilaration and happiness—playing on the beach, snorkeling, diving and fishing. Most recreational fishermen I know measure their good days by the number and size of fish they’ve reeled in. But it turns out those numbers are important for another reason, too—that’s critical data that ensures there are plenty of fish left for not just for your next trip but also for your kids’ and their grandkids’ trips.

Recreational fishing is a big deal in areas like the Gulf of Mexico and the South Atlantic. That means a lot of folks are out on the water and those coolers of fish start to add up. In 2015, 8.9 million saltwater anglers took 61 million fishing trips in U.S. waters. This industry is responsible for driving $60 billion in sales impacts into coastal communities through purchases like fishing trips and equipment, spending in hotels and restaurants.

With so much riding on the line, it’s important that we manage our fish sustainably, which means having reliable, accurate data of how many fish we’re taking out our ocean each year. That task falls on the Marine Recreational Information Program or MRIP (em-rip). It is housed in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries) but works closely with state and local wildlife programs.

You’ve probably even met a few of the “fish counters” they work with at the docks. They’re the folks that ask how your trip went and collect data on what sorts of fish were caught, how many were taken and how large they were or in what areas you caught them. Whether you fish from the beach, a boat or a pier, MRIP is collecting the information that fishery scientists and managers need to set season lengths, bag limits and catch quotas. The ultimate goal is preventing overfishing so that fish populations are healthy and resilient.

As you can imagine, this is no easy task and there have been problems in the past. Back in 2006, a panel of experts from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) said the four-decade-old program needed to improve its scientific survey methods. It left a lot of fishermen concerned that the data being used for management wasn’t good enough.

This January, the academy released a follow-up analysis that found the MRIP report card has improved dramatically. It stated that, “Work to redesign [MRIP] has yielded impressive progress over the past decade in providing more reliable catch data to fisheries managers.” It recognized “major improvements” in the statistical design of the survey with reduced bias and better sampling. And some of the findings make for funny dinner conversations—did you know that a snail mail survey is more accurate than a phone survey? We have stopped using land lines but we still use our mailboxes! The NAS also highlighted some room for further improvements, especially in harnessing the utility of mobile devices like tablets and cell phones. Ocean Conservancy agrees that this is an area of great opportunity. We have been working at the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council to implement electronic reporting in the charter for-hire fishery.

Improving data collection will result in better science, better policy and a healthier fishery, which means we can all look forward to more good days on the water!

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