Friday, June 14, 2019

Recreational Data Collection

Data collected from recreational anglers plays an important role in determining the health of fish stocks. Harvest, especially as it relates to fishing effort, can help fisheries scientists identify trends in fish populations over time. These fisheries-dependent data are also used to predict future fishing behavior as fishing seasons are set based on past trends in fishing activity. Finally, these data are used to monitor harvest during a fishing year, which is particularly important for species that are managed with a quota. In-season monitoring of fishing activity prevents overfishing because a season can be closed when a quota is met.
The recreational fishing sector includes both private fishermen and fisherman on for-hire trips. The Council and NOAA Fisheries are currently working to implement new electronic reporting requirements for all federally permitted for-hire vessels in the Gulf. Soon, all for-hire vessels will need to be equipped with hardware that, at minimum, archives vessel location once per hour. Federal for-hire operators will also be required to hail-out each time their vessel leaves the dock and submit an electronic fishing report for each trip prior to offloading fish. These new data collection requirements are expected to vastly improve our understanding of the catch and effort from anglers for-hire fishing trips.

Unfortunately, the collection of private recreational fishing data is more complicated. The universe of recreational fishermen and their fishing effort is hard to define, and directly tracking the activity and harvest of such a large, diverse population is not practical.
Photo: Rosemary White
Why is it hard to figure out how much recreational fishing there is?
Many people assume that private recreational fishing effort can be quantified by simply counting fishing licenses. Unfortunately, it’s more complicated than that.  For starters, not all fishermen are required to be licensed; in many states, you don’t need a license if you’re over 60 or under 16.  Also, licenses don’t distinguish between fishermen targeting federal species and fishermen targeting state managed species.  Finally, some fishermen fish frequently and some fish only on rare occasions; the actual fishing effort of different anglers cannot be estimated based on possession of a license. 

There is a surprisingly simple way to determine what the private recreational sector is catching on average:  Fishing Effort x Catch = Harvest. For years, the federal Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP) was used to collect information on the average effort and average catch of anglers across all coasts of the United States. Since it’s not practical to ask every private recreational angler what they’ve caught each time they go fishing, fisheries scientists use a sample of the entire population of anglers to estimate the activity of the entire fishery. Fishing effort is determined using mail surveys, and average catch is determined by sampling angler catch as a fishing trip is completed. However, this recreational data collection system has been criticized because it relies on a sample to determine the behavior of the entire population.

At this point, there is no practical way to get information about the activity of every single private recreational fisherman. In recent years however, each of the Gulf states have developed their own data collection programs to enhance our understanding of recreational harvest. In fact, Louisiana’s program has replaced MRIP in its state and the other state programs supplement the current MRIP data. Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida have all been certified by MRIP for at least some species. This means the data they collect are useful for management. Texas has always collected and reported its own recreational data and continues to do so. The following is an overview of the different private angler data collection programs used in the Gulf:

Texas Parks and Wildlife Creel Survey
TPWD produces harvest estimates for all salt water species through a combination of trip-end interviews and roving counts of empty boat trailers and wet slips at boat-access sites. The program conducts over 13,200 interviews and 120 roving counts per year.

Photo: Cowboy Charters
Louisiana LA Creel
LWDF produces weekly harvest estimates of all saltwater species based on interviews at public fishing access points coupled with phone and email surveys. Each week, the department completes 31 access point assignments and surveys 1,200 inshore anglers and 400 offshore anglers. 

Mississippi Tails and Scales
MDMR collects red snapper specific catch and effort data using a mandatory electronic reporting system validated by dockside intercepts. This system creates a near real-time estimate of harvest that is reported to NOAA fisheries on a bi-weekly basis. One angler per vessel trip is required to hail-out and declare when they will be fishing for red snapper and where they’ll be launching. This generates an authorization code that allows them to retain red snapper.  Upon completion of the trip, anglers must report their red snapper to ‘close’ the trip. Anglers are not authorized for a new trip until their last trip report is finalized.

Photo: Hubbard's Marina
Alabama Snapper Check
Alabama Marine Resource Division requires the captain/owner of recreational or charter vessels to report harvest of red snapper before landing. Reports can be submitted via online web page, smart phone application, standard touch tone telephone, or by written forms placed in drop boxes provided at certain boating access locations. Alabama Marine Resources Division staff visit coastal marinas and boat launches to validate reports by interviewing anglers with red snapper catches. 

Florida Gulf Reef Fish Survey
FWC requires anglers targeting reef fish species in the Gulf to sign up for the Gulf Reef Fish Survey. FWC then uses the database of Gulf reef fishermen to conduct a mail survey to estimate fishing effort on a monthly basis. FWC also uses dockside interviews to determine the number and type of fish landed and released, and also to collect information on size, weight, and age of fish harvested.

The Council, NOAA Fisheries, and each Gulf State continue to work to find new, innovative ways to improve the accuracy of private recreational angler data. Self-reported angler information, offshore fishing permits, electronic logbooks, and many other methods are being considered as ways to enhance our recreational data collection. Improved fisheries dependent data will contribute to more accurate stock assessments and allow for more precise quota monitoring, however, it may never paint the entire picture of what’s going on beneath the waves.