What a Mess the New Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP) Has Caused

by Tom Fote
(from Jersey Coast Anglers Association November 2019 Newsletter)

Where We Started

When there were two separate agencies (the Bureau of Sport Fisheries under the Secretary of the Interior and the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries under the Department of Commerce) dealing with marine fisheries, the statistics were separately controlled by each bureau. The Bureau of Commercial Fisheries was looking for accurate catch numbers landed by the commercial fishery by having port agents and trying to record every fish caught and sold. This was a combined effort of the states and the federal government. The Bureau of Sport Fisheries was observing the trends in the recreational fishery and used a survey to compare recreational catch from year to year. They also compared their information with the information from the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries to see what each sector caught. The Bureau of Sport Fishing published figures from this comparison. Unlike the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries, the Bureau of Sport Fishing had a much smaller budget for gathering their data since they were not looking for precise landing data.

When the Magnusson Stevens Act was passed, the two Bureaus were combined under NOAA and placed under the Department of Commerce and was called the National Marine Fisheries Service. It also established the council system. The Bureau of Sport Fisheries was a much smaller agency with fewer employees so in the combination the commercial fisheries employees vastly outnumbered the employees from sport fisheries. This difference in number had the impact of placing more value on the commercial issues and more emphasis on commercial statistics. Vast amounts of money were spent to record every commercial fish landed. Because of the efficiency of the new gear, we realized the commercial catch could quickly deplete stocks. This led to a collapse of stocks and NMFS put in regulations to stop the overharvesting of the resource by the commercial fisheries. NMFS did not concentrate at all on the recreational fishery since it was felt that this sector had little impact on the overall stocks. The recreational equipment is less efficient and a large recreational catch only happens when there are large stocks. The recreational catch is largely a catch of opportunity.

I got involved in fisheries management in the 1980s with the Atlantic States Fisheries Commission and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC). NMFS and the states were hoping to work together to develop plans to insure the survival of multiple stocks. When the foreign fleets were put out of federal waters, we saw an immediate drop in the commercial landings of some species. Through grants and tax breaks, the government helped expand the commercial fleet and also NMFS pushed them to fish what they considered was underutilized species. A perfect example is when NMFS convinced the west coast tuna boats to come to the east coast and target bluefin tuna, then considered an underutilized species. We are still suffering the consequences in the bluefin tuna stocks.

In the 90s the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council began creating fisheries management plans that not only divided the commercial fishery into sectors but also placed quotas on both the commercial and recreational sectors. This is when I was a Commissioner to the ASMFC and saw how the process developed. There were some species for which were jointly managed by ASMFC, MAFMC and NMFS which continue to this day. This required joint meetings to approve plans for these species. The species that are jointly managed by the ASMFC and the MAFMC are bluefish, summer flounder, black sea bass and scup. With the passage of the Atlantic Coast Conservation Act, the ASMFC got a powerful tool in managing their individual fisheries. At that time the ASMFC had more power than the MAFMC since the ASMFC had the power to put in place a moratorium on a specific species.

By the late 90s, the ASMFC and the MAFMC were placing quotas on the recreational sector, implementing these quotas with bag limits and size limits. NMFS had long since rejected the original survey used by the Bureau of Sport Fishing and replaced it with the Marine Recreational Statistical Survey. This survey was not designed to get accurate catch data but rather to show trends in recreational fishing. This survey was, in its time, the best available data and was used to manage recreational fishing, set bag limits, size limits and quotas. The problem was that data that was only designed to show coastwide trends was now used to manage state-by-state quotas for recreational fishing. The recreational community has never had any trust in these figures as they are used to create management plans. There was an outcry from the recreational community to Congress. Congress assigned the task of reviewing MRFSS to the National Academy of Science. The report they created pointed out the flaws in MRFSS and explained that it cannot be used for any accurate management decisions. The passage of the 2007 Magnusson Stevens Act required NMFS to fix the problem within three years.

Magnusson Stevens Act Mandates – Creation of a Valid Recreational Statistical Program by 2009

In this case, Congress created a requirement without providing the funds necessary to complete the task. Dr. John Borman, former head of the Northeast Science Center, was assigned this task. He went to Congress and requested a budget of fifty million dollars. The existing budget was only eleven million dollars which was totally inadequate to survey the millions of recreational anglers. This is another example of a totally unfunded mandate. To their credit, NMFS and their scientists tried to update the existing program with the available funds by using more and more statistical models without any additional data. As the old computer expression goes, “garbage in garbage out.” In this case, the lack of data guaranteed more problems.

The lack of money also created a serious time lag in creating a new program. Instead of having a fix available by 2009, we are now just seeing the new program in 2018/2019. The MAFMC has become the testing ground for numbers gathered using this new program (Marine Recreational Information Program).

Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP)

One of the big problems with MRIP and the previous program is the phone calls used to determine the number of trips. With the advent of spam calls and the use of cell phones, calling people based on random numbers from a phone book has no reliability. NMFS has tried multiple ways to get better phone lists and better responses to no avail. Eventually NMFS decided to scrap the telephone survey and implement a mail-based Fishing Effort Survey (FES). There appears to be a better response than there was to the phone call system. In most instances the data gathered shows a huge increase in recreational participation and the amount of fish caught.

The other part of the program is the dockside interviews. Historically this was done by contractors in whom the recreational community placed little confidence. The ASMFC has facilitated the states taking charge of the dockside interviews. That is where we actually count the number and size of recreational fish landed. Those numbers are used to extrapolate the entire recreational participation and catch numbers. There are still problems with this method. Using New Jersey as an example, like many NJ anglers I live on the water and have a boat at my dock. I am never available for a dockside interview. The only way they could count my information is to interview me while on the water. The survey now includes additional intercepts with shore-based anglers. Again, the surveying occurs where it is convenient. These numbers are also used to extrapolate total catch.

Comparing Numbers

Over the years, there have been many attempts to correct MRFSS numbers. NMFS scientists would create new models that were designed to get better results from the available data. Every time this was done, it included a retrospective analysis and previous numbers were modified. Even though numbers were modified to give a better understanding, the previous quotas were never changed. The new retrospective analysis has gone back to 1982. This has shown that NMFS and the ASMFC made dramatic errors in dividing the quotas between the recreational and commercial sectors by underestimating the total recreational catch. It is my understanding that the South Atlantic Council will not use these numbers until NMFS has done quota adjustments. The Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council and the ASMFC have not chosen to make this demand. Instead they are moving ahead without any adjustments in the previous quotas. Changing previous quotas will have no impact on what was caught in those years. But new quotas are often developed based on the old quotas. If the split between recreational and commercial catches in the old quotas is incorrect, a new quota based on the same split will be inherently incorrect. We have seen this already happen. Just dealing with the quotas is only part of the problem. The new data also suggests that we are overfishing stocks that were previously estimated as not overfished. This happened because the new numbers estimate the recreational catch and participation is much larger than previously thought. If the managers do not also acknowledge that this data suggests the existence of larger biomasses, anglers continue to be penalized for having more fish to catch. Two examples will help us understand how complex this issue is.

We just had a joint meeting to deal with the scup quota. MRIP estimated that the recreational scup catch was much larger than previously thought and that this catch exceeded the assigned quota. We know this species is many times larger than estimated and is fully rebuilt. In 1996 10% of our recreational quota was given to the commercial sector as incentive to reduce bycatch. We already began this discussion with a split that was based on old, completely flawed numbers. NMFS wants to reduce the recreational catch to maintain the 18% recreational allowance. This would require a huge reduction on the recreational catch with changes in bag limits, seasons and size limits. The economic impact on the recreational community will be a disaster for the charter and party boat fleets from Massachusetts to North Carolina. There will be additional negative impacts on tackle stores and private boat owners. All the attendees acknowledge that the reduction was not needed. The abundance of the spawning stock and the underage of landings by the commercial sector of their quota would more than make up for any recreational increase and we would be way below the target. NMFS could have also restored the recreational quota to our quota. Instead, NMFS pressured the MAFMC members to vote on a reduction they did not believe was necessary and the ASMFC Commissioners fell in line. NMFS promised that there would be further discussions but insisted on a vote that day. The message to the recreational community is clear, “We are going to cut back on your scup fishery but trust us.” There is no way I trust NMFS. We have all been lied to before. They need to show us, not just keep telling us they are going to fix things.

In April I wrote a long column on what happened with summer flounder. It is available on the JCAA webpage. Even though the catch numbers increased dramatically based on the new MRIP numbers, NMFS did not declare summer flounder was overfished or that overfishing was not taking place. Instead they just increased the size of the stock and gave a 49% increase to the commercial sector. Since the recreational community has been 11% under its quota for the last five years, we asked for an increase of 3.5%. NMFS fought this and was successful in blocking any increase. Our 2018 numbers were actually 24% under our quota. NMFS has no problem with the recreational catch being 24% under quota but wants to maximize the commercial catch. They still don’t get the economic impact of recreational fishing to the economy. We will have to wait until December to find out what will be proposed for 2020.

Correcting the Problems

First, there should not be any more management using the new MRIP numbers until we have done quota adjustments. We should put all decisions on hold until that is done. Any decisions about the couple of stocks designated as overfished using these numbers should be delayed because of the huge economic impact to both the commercial and recreational sector.

Second, we need Congress to fully fund the necessary research to develop reliable data. If NMFS felt they needed fifty million in 2007, the price has surely gone up. But I would settle for the original fifty million.

Third, the recreational anglers need to get involved. Letters and phone calls need to go to Governors, State and Federal Legislators and the President. We need them to fully understand we are voters and we are tired of being ignored. In New Jersey, we are 10% of the population and if we ever behave as though that is so, we could accomplish a great deal. We need to tell them to fund recreational data collection.

To be continued next month.

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