Testimony Before the National Academy of Science Committee to Review Recreational Fisheries Survey Methods

Posted on April 01, 2006

I am Richen Brame, Atlantic Coast Fisheries Coordinator for the Coastal Conservation Association.  Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you this afternoon on recreational fisheries data collection.

The Coastal Conservation Association is a private, not for profit, fishery conservation organization with over 90,000 members in 13 state chapters from Texas to Maine.  We have a representative Board of Directors of over 100 individuals from the 13 state affiliate chapters that manage CCA’s business and set policy goals for the organization.  While composed primarily of recreational fishers, we believe the proper conservation and management of the marine fishery resource benefits all users.  Our history of advocacy for the conservation of the marine fishery resource clearly demonstrates our commitment to this important resource.  We sincerely appreciate the opportunity to provide information on this important topic
CCA believes that fisheries management, including recreational fisheries management, should be data driven.  In some important fisheries, like Atlantic striped bass, the recreational portion of the catch represents the majority of the harvest, comprising over 70% of the annual fishing mortality, making the need for accurate data manifest.   
It is important to remember that the recreational fishery and the commercial fishery are prosecuted very differently, surveyed differently and should be managed differently.  Where nearly the entire commercial harvest can be counted, often in real time, the recreational fishery must be surveyed and the harvest estimated.
Commercial fishers aggregate catch over space or time. They can either set a gill net and let it soak for an extended period or they can employ a mobile device like a trawl and drag it over a relatively large area for a shorter period.  Thus the commercial fishery can efficiently harvest fish from a declining stock or a stock at a low population level.  The commercial fishery is managed to produce the most yield, measured in pounds, and the duration of the season is of secondary importance, provided that maximum yield is achieved.  So long as the market isn’t glutted, a fishery that can be fully exploited over a relatively short time period increases economic efficiencies.
Conversely, the recreational fishery samples a fishery population one hook at a time, and catch is much more tied to population size than it is in the commercial fishery. Recreational fishery management should not be tied to maximum sustainable yield, which actually produces a smaller population, but for abundance.  Recreational opportunities are optimized when anglers have a realistic chance to encounter some fish over an extended period, and longer seasons provide higher economic returns.  Look at the effect of population size on participation  in the striped bass or summer flounder fishery and you can see what happens to the recreational fishery when stock abundance is restored. 
Good management depends on good data for good decisions.  The recreational fishery will be increasingly dependent on accurate data for better management. 
The original recreational data collection system, the Marine Recreational Fishing Statistics Survey, was implemented to determine trends in coastwide recreational fishery harvest.  MRFSS is not a bad system, it is in fact a very good system to do what it was designed to do: to gather data to determine catch on a coastwide level, occasionally on a regional level. It was never intended to provide state-by-state catch estimates, nor was it designed for use as a quota monitoring device or for allocation.  Because of the ever pressing needs of today’s fishery management system, recreational fisheries catch data is too often used in ways it was never designed for.  
It is no small wonder then, that the Marine Recreational Fishing Statistics Survey is perhaps the most maligned, misused and misquoted marine fisheries data set. 
The National Academies Review of Recreational Fisheries Survey Methods has an unprecedented opportunity before it:  You can decide what recreational fishery data is needed for stock assessment and management and design a survey method to accomplish that goal.  It may, or may not, look like the present day MRFSS system.  In the conceptual stage that should not be a concern.  Later, in the implementation stage it will be necessary to make whatever system devised at least comparable to the past MRFSS data, but we believe it is critical that this body first and foremost design a system to meet the future needs of the stock assessment and management systems.  You have the opportunity here to suggest a system that will meet the needs of fishery managers for the foreseeable future. 
There are several items we believe necessary for any recreational data collection system to be effective:
** Recreational Saltwater Fishing License.  A properly designed licensing system will provide a universe of anglers to sample as well as provide a dedicated funding source for fisheries management.  Given the present antipathy to a license in many states, perhaps a federal permit could be implemented to provide a surveyable universe of anglers until states decide to put a license in place on their own.  Any such federal permit could establish standardized criteria for a state license, and provide exemptions for the citizens of any state that has a conforming license system in place.  In that way, managers would enjoy the advantage of a universal licensing system, free of the loopholes that exempt anglers from coverage under present state licensing schemes, which could provide a uniform source of data available from all of the several states. 
** Ground Truthing.  The present MRFSS estimates can be very precise, but its accuracy is largely unknown.  In one comparison, NMFS found that the average annual 1998-2003 For Hire Survey estimates of charter boat angler fishing trips in the EEZ are 45% lower than those generated by the traditional MRFSS.  Which is more accurate?  If the intended use of the data is catch trends or even use as a signal in a model, then precision is all that is necessary.  However, MRFSS data is being used to determine allocation and set quotas, directly comparing recreational harvest estimates with commercial landings data.  If actual landings are the intended use of future recreational harvest estimation methods, some method of determining accuracy must be devised. 
** Substantially Reduce Bias.  There are many sources of known bias in the present MRFSS system, such as the absence of data from private property or from boat trips that dock on private property.  Any future system must make every effort to identify and eliminate known sources of bias. 
The fundamental problem facing managers today is the competing uses of the marine fishery resource.  There are increasing numbers of recreational fishers vying with a large commercial fishery for their share of the fish in the often contentious management process.  Both are valuable to the United States economy.  Yet we are still using a method devised a quarter century ago to estimate harvest trends as the absolute gold standard of accurately estimating true harvest.  That is an unfair and untenable situation.  The very future of the marine recreational fishery largely depends on the ability of managers to accurately estimate recreational harvest and discards.
Thank you again for the opportunity to speak to you today, we look forward to working with you in the future to devise a more accurate system to estimate recreational harvest.