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Saltwater Sportsman Magazine, Sept 2006



Fisheries management is about to get a lot more accurate

By Capt. John McMurray


Fisheries management plans that dictate recreational size and bag limits are based on catch statistics. A sampling program known as the Marine Recreational Fisheries Statistics Survey (MRFSS) was implemented in 1979.  The limited data generated from MRFSS are used by managers to gage angling harvest.  Because most have never been surveyed or known anyone who has, understandably they question the accuracy.  Furthermore, many contend that stock assessments don’t match what anglers see on the water. Lack of confidence in the current system has become particularly heated lately because of what some angling and recreational fishing industry groups perceive to be overly restrictive regulations governing the harvest of important recreational species.  


The MRFSS System


Commercial harvest statistics are considered to be 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.  Such a system of trying to count every fish in a timely manner is not possible in the recreational fishery because there are just too many anglers.  Such a program would be far too expensive to administer and costs would probably exceed the entire NOAA Fisheries budget. 


MRFSS employs two different methods to collect data: A “random digit dialing” telephone survey is used to collect data on recreational fishing effort (number of trips), while a shore-side “intercept” survey is used to make estimates of the size and quantity of the catch, including the species encountered and whether fish were released alive.  “Intercept” interviews generate catch-per-trip data, which is simply multiplied by effort data from the phone surveys to calculate a rough estimate of the total recreational catch. 


MRFSS estimates harvest much as a political poll estimates voters’ preferences.  However, it does not, nor was it ever intended to, provide the precise number of fish anglers have caught.  MRFSS relies on very limited random sampling and as with any poll, there is quite a bit 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.


MRFSS was designed to provide a coast-wide estimate of recreational catch, and to provide evidence of trends. It has been effective in doing so. But since 1979, fisheries managers have asked MRFSS to do more than that. MRFSS was not intended to be a quota monitoring tool, nor was it intended to be used at a state by state level, but that’s how it’s now being used, even though the sample size per state is not large enough to provide reliable estimates, and the fact that managers don’t know the results of the survey until four months after it is completed makes effective quota management impossible..


The NRC report


Bill Hogarth, Director of NOAA Fisheries acknowledged MRFSS’ shortcomings, saying “We have long recognized that the program is neither comprehensive nor flawless.”  In response to criticism from the angling community, in 2004 NOAA Fisheries commissioned the National Research Council (NRC) to evaluate and suggest improvements to MRFSS. Last March, NRC released its findings in a detailed report.  Dick Brame of Costal Conservation Association noted “To no one’s surprise, NRC found that the MRFSS system was in need of extensive revisions if it were to properly fulfill its current role in fisheries management.” 


The Executive Summary of the NRC report includes more than 40 conclusions and recommendations, but at the heart of the report was the recommendation that MRFSS should be completely redesigned.


NRC recommended that a universal “sampling frame" be established through national registration of all saltwater anglers. A mandatory state saltwater license, with no exemptions for age or other reason, would provide a comprehensive list of registered anglers that phone surveyors could contact, eliminating the need for them to make random calls.   That simple step would increase the number of angler intercepts and so increase the precision of the survey.  “Many of the current challenges with recreational fishing data will be overcome by having a comprehensive database of all saltwater anglers. The database will allow us to regularly check in with anglers to accurately determine catch and fishing effort,” said Hogarth.  Unfortunately, attempts to institute a salt water license will not be popular in many states, particularly in the northeast. 


NRC also recommended that new analysis procedures based on current sampling theory should be designed and implemented, to account for activities such as nighttime fishing and fishing from boats that land their catch on private property, activities that are not directly addressed in the current survey. While some angling groups criticize MRFSS for overestimating recreational catch, sampling biases probably cause some harvests to be underestimated.  For example, many striped bass, particularly the large ones, are landed at night when no surveyors are around.  A substantial portion of the weakfish catch is also landed during the dark hours, or early in the morning before surveyors begin.  In addition, surveyors don’t access many locations, including shore spots that are not easily accessible from the road.


NRC also recommends that the for-hire sector should be considered part of the commercial sector. Undoubtedly, successful charter and head-boat captains not only catch more fish per day then the average angler, but also sail more often, and so probably account for a greater share of the harvest.  The report suggest that the data collection and reporting system used for the for-hire sector should probably be closer to that used for commercial vessel, such as. mandatory reporting, harvest log books etc.


The NRC notes that MRFSS is focused on biological factors and not social and economic factors. Therefore, data regarding fisheries’ human dimensions should be enhanced through an independent national trip and expenditure survey, add-on surveys and an updated national database of marine recreational fishing sites. Furthermore, the report points out that outreach and communication requires improvement. If anglers have confidence in the data, then their willingness to participate in MRFSS will improve. 


NRC also states that a permanent and independent research group should be established and funded to continuously evaluate MRFSS’ statistical design and oversee improvements. Methods that were state of the art a generation ago are obsolete today.  One can be sure that the dynamics of recreational fishing will continue to change in the future.  NRC recommends an ongoing evaluation program to assure that we are not left with an inadequate system again. 


The growing popularity of recreational fishing has increased anglers’ impacts on sportfish stocks.  While many in the angling community complain that MRFSS currently over-reports recreational catch, Brame correctly notes “we all must remember that error cuts both ways; estimates may be either too high or too low.  Thus, when data is in doubt, we must urge fisheries managers to take a precautionary approach, and not try to make decisions that require a level of detail not supported by the available numbers.”  Needless to say, the argument being advanced by some—that angling rules can be relaxed, because no one can prove that we’re overfishing any species, must be decisively rejected until MRFSS is fixed, and particular care should be taken to protect the resource in this time of increased uncertainty.


Because of the NRC’s findings, we can expect things to change for the better.  Executive Director of the Atlantic States Marine Fisherieis Commission, John O’Shea notes “With a lot more money and increased legislative authority for saltwater fishing licenses and mandatory reporting by for-hire vessels, a better job can be done in accounting for recreational harvests.”


"NRC has provided us with guidance on the way forward with our recreational data collection program" Hogarth said. “You have my commitment to improve the system. It’s time we all roll up our sleeves and fix the MRFSS program so we can all be confident in the data we use to manage recreational fisheries.”  According to Hogarth, NOAA fisheries is already considering pilot projects to implement some of the NRC recommendations in the Gulf of Mexico.


For a copy of the Executive Summary of the NRC report on MRFSS log onto