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Flyfishing in Saltwaters Magazine, Jan/Feb 2005



Recreational Catch Statistics and Their Accuracy

By Captain John McMurray


Do you ever wonder what forms the basis for federal, state, and interstate fisheries management plans?  What dictates size and bag limits for your favorite sportfish?   Of course the decisions are based on catch statistics, but where do they come from?  Recently, because of what some perceive to be overly restrictive regulations governing the harvest of important recreational species, anglers have begun to question whether recreational fishing data collection methods are adequate. Few know an angler who has ever been surveyed about his or her catch, and it sometimes seems that the stock assessments don’t match what anglers see on the water.


Commercial harvest statistics seem reasonably reliable because commercial fishermen are required to report their catch, and do so in something approaching real time.  Theoretically, every fish harvested by a commercial operation is counted.  While this is not exactly true, it is safe to say the vast majority of commercial harvest is reported.  Such a complete and timely tally is not possible in the recreational fishery. There are too many anglers and too great an area to make such reporting practical.  Much smaller-scale efforts, such as the mandatory reporting of recreational bluefin tuna and billfish landings, have not been overly successful, as many, if not most, anglers fail to comply with reporting requirements.  In addition, any comprehensive angler reporting program would be far too expensive to administer.  Costs could easily exceed the entire NOAA Fisheries budget. 


Given that reality, some sort of sampling program similar to an election poll is the only viable alternative.  Since 1979 the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has been sampling anglers though the Marine Recreational Fishery Statistics Survey (MRFSS).  The data generated from the survey are used not only by NMFS but by fisheries management councils, interstate marine fisheries commissions, and state agencies as a basis to manage angling harvest.


MRFSS uses two different methods to collect data: A “random digit dialing” telephone survey of households in coastal areas, and site interviews, or “intercept” surveys conducted by contract employees at fishing access sites such as boat ramps, marinas, fishing piers etc.   The telephone survey is used to collect data on recreational fishing effort (number of trips), while the intercept survey is used to make estimates on the actual catch (species identity, number, weights and lengths, and whether or not the catch was released alive or dead).  From the dockside interviews they generate catch-per-trip data.  With this information they simply multiply the estimated number of trips based on the sample derived from the phone interviews, by the catch-per-trip estimate derived from the intercept interview.  The result equals an estimate of the total recreational catch of a species during a particular time period.  This system provides estimates of harvest, similar to the way a poll estimates voters’ preferences.  It is not a precise counting of fish anglers have caught.  MRFSS relies on very limited random sampling and as with any poll there is error associated with the estimate.  That error is inversely proportional to the square of the number of intercepts made; that is, to cut the error in half, MRFSS must make four times as many intercepts.


Economic questions are also occasionally included in the intercept survey to help economists and fisheries managers determine the value of recreational of recreational fishing and the effects certain limits will have on anglers and the industry they support.  The information is also used to allocate fishery resources fairly among fishing groups. 


MRFSS was designed to provide a coast-wide or regional estimate of recreational catch as well as providing evidence of trends.  In the past it has been effective in doing so.  The survey was not intended to be a quota monitoring tool, nor was it intended to be used on a state by state level.  The sample size per state is just not large enough, and the error associated with state samples can be very high.   Furthermore, real-time quota monitoring is not possible with this method as managers don’t know the results of the survey until four months after it is completed. 


The New York fluke (summer flounder) issue is a good example of these problems coming into play.  Despite a lot of bad weather in 2003 and documented decreases in bait and tackle sales, marine fuel usage, boat registrations, charter and head boat trips etc., MRFSS data shows that there was a significant increase in fluke landings in 2003 compared to 2001 and 2002 and that NY was exceeding their fluke quota by 110%.  Angling industry representatives argued that by all other counts this was impossible.  Nonetheless, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission required New York to make a 48% harvest reduction in the 2004 season.  New York’s fisheries managers objected, and promulgated regulations to effect only a 20% reduction, taking the position that the ASMFC-mandated reduction was the result of an inappropriate usage of the MRFSS, claiming that “it was never meant to establish and manage state specific quotas.” It was still found out of compliance with the interstate fluke management plan.  Had New York not finally come into compliance, it would have faced sanctions in the form of a complete closure of the recreational and commercial fluke fishery on September 3.  The litigation that could have ensued might have led to the breakdown of the interstate management system.


A similar situation happened on the Pacific Coast with Rockfish.  The Pacific Management Council recently voted to close the entire West Coast for both anglers and commercial fishermen out to 200-fathoms based on what angling groups claimed to be unreliable MRFSS data which estimated the catch by anglers in July and August of 2003 to much higher than it ever had been.  A survey done by the Recreational Fishing Alliance in the same timeframe as MRFSS resulted in an estimate that was one tenth the amount of the MRFSS estimate.  However, the RFA survey wasn’t considered by experts to be statistically valid, nor was it was it peer-reviewed.


There are many, particularly those in the environmental community, who argue that the acceptance of the MRFSS data by the recreational community is related to the news coming out of the survey.  Hence, when the data results in more restrictive seasons, increased size limits and smaller bag limits, anglers question the survey.  However, when the MRFSS data supports an increase in bag limits or a reduction in the minimum size, those who question the validity of the data are conspicuously silent.   


Regardless, NMFS is required by law to make decisions based on the “best available science,” even if that science is not perfect, and all management bodies must have a “rational basis” for their decision on the administrative record.  Even though the MRFSS system is flawed, it’s the only option available to regulators, and given the impossibility of polling all, or even a majority, of the angling public, any replacement system proposed would end up being a survey that looked a lot like MRFSS.  Obviously, fisheries data collection systems could be better; however, the current shortcomings in the system should not be used as an excuse to ignore existing information or to avoid reducing mortality on stocks that might be in trouble.  If the best available science is ignored, there is nothing else to base fisheries management decisions on.  If  states and user groups can successfully argue “faulty data” when they decide they want less restrictive size and bag limits for their anglers, the whole interstate management system comes into question, and that isn’t good for the fish or anyone else for that matter. 


While MRFSS will always be subject to sampling error, its precision can be increased by increasing the sampling size.  More and more states are taking it into their own hands to do so.  Most states rely on a contractor to do the sampling and do the absolute minimum sampling required.  States that do their fisheries data collection in-house can employ much larger sample sizes than NMFS.  Such states report a high level of angler acceptance of MRFSS data.  North Carolina has brought its data collection program in-house spending around $250k on the program.  While MRFSS would only sample a couple of thousand North Carolina anglers, the state does over 25,000 intercepts to ensure that their estimates are more precise.  Oregon samples 30% of angler trips to better manage its halibut fishery, which has a strict quota limit.  It could be argued that the states that don’t do their own sampling are the ones who have the most problems with their data.   


A saltwater license in those states that don’t already have one would probably be the quickest route to improving MRFSS.  A license might provide a list of registered anglers that phone surveyors could call, eliminating the need for telemarketers to dial randomly in an attempt to find a home where someone has taken a fishing trip in the previous two months.  At the least, it would provide data that might impeach seemingly excessive MRFSS participation figures   At the most basic level, a license could generate the funds needed for a state to bring its data collection in house, increase the number of intercepts and so increase the precision of the survey.   


Still, some of the biggest critics of MRFSS are also the biggest opponents of a salt water license.  Perhaps, with MRFSS as with so many other things, the simplest solutions also appear to be the most elusive.


Capt. John McMurray is currently the program officer at the Norcross Wildlife Foundation in New York which has distributed over $14 million in conservation grants since 1982, much of it directly targeted for protection of fish and fish habitat.  He also sits as the conservation officer of the New York Flyfishing and Light Tackle Guides Association (PFLGA). You can contact  him at