Testimony Regarding Real Time Harvest Management in the Recreational Fishery

Posted on April 01, 2006 by Richen Brame, Executive Coordinator for the Coastal Conservation Association’s Atlantic States Fisheries Committee

Good Morning, the Coastal Conservation Association is a marine fisheries conservation organization supported by 80,000 members from Maine to Texas. I coordinate CCA’s Atlantic fishery conservation activities in its 11 East Coast chapters with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. Our committee has developed positions on a wide variety of marine species and conservation goals, sometimes easily and sometimes not so easily, but we have always managed to come to a common, consensus position. One of the easier positions we have dealt with involves hard quotas for the recreational fishery – we unanimously oppose them.

This concept has been used on the east coast most frequently when discussing the recent summer flounder overages by the recreational fishery. There have been attempts to close the season in mid-stream by court action to prevent overages and discussions of having the ASMFC or Mid-Atlantic Council stop the season or require paybacks. Usually these ideas are brought forth by someone not connected with either the recreational or commercial fishery.
 
The unspoken assumption is - the commercial industry is held to a tight quota, shouldn’t recreational industry face the same requirement?
 
The two segments of the fishery are entirely different beasts – the commercial fishery has relatively few boats, federal licenses that are a closet IFQ system, and strict reporting requirements. They fish for no other reason than to make money. Thus, their motive is more basic, and their drive to fish more insistent. It is a relatively simple matter to dictate the total allowable catch and monitor it.
 
On the other hand, there are millions of recreational fishermen who decide to fish based on a lot of different reasons, including the perceived abundance of the fish, the allowable limit, the weather, the amount of money in his or her pocket at the time, and whether or not a buddy can go. These all influence the decision to fish, and this is the critical difference – the reason to fish.
 
In the recreational fishery, what we are really managing is the behavior of millions of fishermen. In the commercial fishery, we are managing catch.
 
If you restrict the bag, increase the allowable minimum size and restrict the days enough, you can effectively control the harvest because you are affecting the decision of the fishermen to fish or not. If you do not restrict days, bag or size limit and there is an abundant resource available, they will fish. As we have seen in summer flounder and striped bass, the recreational fishery responds to an abundant resource by increasing effort nearly exponentially. It’s like the movie Field of Dreams – instead of “Build it and they will come,” it is “Restore them and they will come.”
 
Restricting the bag limit by itself may not curb catch, since most angler do not limit out. In fact, the average catch-per-trip is usually a small portion of the allowable bag. Similarly, small changes in the minimum size limit may not affect harvest as the fish grow, especially if there is a dominant age class moving through the population. In an expanding population, managers cannot manage based on equilibrium conditions, they must take into account increasing effort.
 
In short, the managers of summer flounder did not effectively restrict the bag, season and size limits enough to affect the behavior of fishermen and effectively control harvest.
 
Thus, in the end, it is unrealistic to think one can manage a recreational fishery like a commercial fishery. They are completely different animals. Real time harvest monitoring, easily done in the commercial fishery, is essentially impossible in the recreational fishery, except perhaps in very limited circumstances.
 
That being said, we strongly believe the recreational fishery must operate within the conservation goals of any fishery management plan, knowing that in the best case the recreational harvest will oscillate around the allowable catch level from year-to-year. The MRFSS system or some derivative of it is the logical way to sample recreational catch.
 
I’m sure it will be covered by another speaker, but I have to point out that my home state - North Carolina – puts a fair amount of additional funding into MRFSS sampling and has some of the best data available, which brings me to my final point. From a recreational point of view, most FMPs are flawed. In summer flounder, the recreational fishery is managed by a single management goal – total allowable catch or TAC. TAC is arguably the worst possible single goal to manage for in the recreational fishery, as it presumes the strict ability to restrict or suspend harvest. Since the recreational fishery is such a diffuse entity, we advocate using many different management goals – F target, SSB target, Biomass target and an age structure goal to name just a few. The more variables managers have to manage a recreational fishery, the better the resulting management will be.
 
Recreational fishermen want to do their share in restoring and maintaining an abundant fishery resource. Managers have to realize that they are different from the commercial fishery and manage accordingly.