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New Surveys Give a Clearer Picture of Recreational Fishing

Improved recreational fishing data could bring big changes down the line

© Benjamin Drummond

More than 9 million saltwater recreational fishermen in the U.S. have a significant impact on the health of our ocean fish populations. While commercial fishing certainly catches the most fish by volume (for instance, the 3.4 billion pounds of Alaska pollock that largely ends up in your Filet-O-Fish), the catch from individual anglers can also add up in a big way. In the South Atlantic, recreational fishermen catch the majority of greater amberjack, red grouper and mutton snapper. And in the Gulf of Mexico, they catch nearly half of the most hotly-contested species in the water: red snapper.

Getting a good understanding of how much these recreational fishermen are catching each year has always been a challenge. There are a lot of recreational fishermen on the water, and they fish from private boats and docks scattered along our coasts. Improving this data has been a major focus of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the federal agency in charge of sustainably managing our ocean fishery resources. For example, in the Gulf, the agency has been working with the states to support individual surveys of red snapper and other fish in an effort to increase the number of data points and reduce uncertainty.

NMFS has also been making major revisions to how it conducts key surveys of recreational fishing. These surveys are carried out through the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP) which is the primary source of recreational fishing data along the Atlantic Coast and Gulf of Mexico. Back in 2017, the prestigious National Academy of Sciences (NAS) reviewed the changes and found MRIP has made “impressive progress.”

Now that the new surveys for MRIP are in place, NMFS is getting better data about the catch levels of recreational fishermen. This is ultimately a good thing for fishery management. But, good management also hinges on having long-term data. A single snapshot doesn’t indicate whether a fish stock is doing better or worse over time. The statisticians at NMFS have to find a way to make the data from the new surveys talk to the data from the old surveys; otherwise, we’d be comparing apples and oranges. And today, they’ve released the calibration numbers that will allow us to translate between the new and old surveys.

Taken at face value, these numbers are going to come as a bit of a shock to many recreational fishermen. The new surveys will likely show that the amount of fishing from the recreational sector (for instance, the number of trips they take, or the number of hours they spend out on the water)—known as their effort—is three to five times higher than that old surveys indicated. This is likely to translate into higher catch levels as well.

When I first heard this, so many questions immediately jumped to mind — what does this mean for our data and management? What are the implications for sustainability? Have we been overfishing?

The good news is, maybe not. We expect that the trends we’ve seen out in the water—rebounding stock levels, the return of fish to areas where they were previously depleted, more old and large fish in the water reproducing—aren’t likely to change much. These are a product of the management measures we’ve put in place for all fishermen to ensure they catch only a sustainable amount each year.

What will probably change is our understanding of the numbers we assign to those sustainable levels. All of the new MRIP calibrations will need to be run through individual stock assessments for each fish stock before we understand how these changes have impacted our integrated system of fisheries science and management. And you can get some unintuitive results. For instance, it’s easy to imagine that higher recreational catch means they were catching far too much—if you compare revised catch levels to their old catch limits, it will certainly look that way. But higher catch levels, combined with our independent understanding that the stocks have been getting healthier, could mean there were more fish out there than we thought, or that the fish were more productive (better at reproducing) than we understood. So, while we could definitely get some bad news out of individual stock assessments, jumping to conclusions now is premature. It will take a couple of years of number crunching (stock assessments can take a while) to figure out which fish stocks may need more attention, and which are still doing fine.

The improved MRIP data is certainly going to have some disruptive effects on fisheries management, and regions already facing challenges—like stocks moving to deeper and colder waters due to climate change—will need to creatively adapt their management to accommodate. That’s why it’s good that our fisheries law, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA), sets up a unique system where regional bodies comprised of scientists; state and federal fisheries managers; and commercial, recreational and other stakeholders get together to tackle local fisheries management challenges. These experts will review the results of each stock assessment once it’s incorporated the new MRIP numbers, and determine what next steps may be necessary to ensure sustainable catch levels for recreational and commercial fishermen. While the numbers may change, the fundamentals stay the same: use the best science, set limits, provide opportunity, count the catch, and hold all fishermen accountable for what they take from the ocean. By working together, and building on the successes we’ve had so far, we can meet the challenges ahead.

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