In January 2005, I sat in a stuffy conference room in a hotel in Secaucus, New Jersey, observing
as scientists and researchers explained, discussed and defended the methods used to calculate the impact of recreational
anglers on the ocean's fish populations.
I had just begun my descent into the world of fisheries management at that point, wading into waters that I knew were roiling with controversy, but not realizing in those early steps how deep the issues went — nor realizing how muddy they were.
That stuffy conference room discussion of MRFSS — the Marine Recreational Fishery Statistics Survey — was eye-opening for me, and not just because of the problems that were described with how the survey was conducted. It was the first time I'd encountered scientists who were so convinced of their own methods that they were unwilling to listen to anyone or anything that called them into question.
That glimpse of how some scientists for NOAA Fisheries gripped their beliefs like a child holding onto an ice cream cone baffled me, but at the same time it explained why recreational fishing was headed down the rabbit hole. The unwillingness of fisheries scientists to consider that their beloved survey might have a problem with it was, in a word, bizarre. It flew in the face of everything I had learned in my science classes growing up, where you reported an outcome, rather than predeterminining what the data was going to tell you.
Of course, most people know by now that was the start of what was supposed to be an overhaul of how NOAA Fisheries tracks recreational fisheries data. We jumped through hoops. We signed up for saltwater registries, paid for saltwater licenses, got our permits.
This is now Year Five of the National Saltwater Angler Registry, what is supposed to be a comprehensive list of people who fish recreationally — a giant saltwater angler phone book — with the idea being that they could be called to particpate in angler surveys to gauge participation.
Great idea in theory. But according to a recent editorial by our friend Jim Hutchinson Jr. in The Fisherman magazine, that's all it is: an idea.
Five years after the saltwater registry was put in place and almost 10 years after that review of MRFSS by the National Academies of Science, we find out that the registry — the backbone of the Marine Recreation Information Program (MRIP) — is sitting in a dusty corner of the internet in NOAA's offices, much like those fat old phone books most of us grew up using that have, for the most part, ceased to exist.
Hutch, in his editorial, tells us the registry hasn't been used yet.
And NOAA continues to ignore documentation it has in hand — including trip logs that for-hire captains are required to fill out regarding species caught, quantity and more — instead of using that data to improve its estimates of recreational angling.
So why, as a big game fisherman, does this matter to you, you ask?
Very simply, it shows a lack of willingness on the part of NOAA to do the right thing by the angling public — and that unwillingness to do right threatens all recreational anglers.
Most of the big-game species we pursue face some sort of regulations, whether it's sharks or tuna, grouper or tilefish or marlin. When a government agency is setting regulations governing an activity, we as the governed have the right to expect that due diligence has been done regarding those regulations.
By not putting the saltwater registry to use and by ignoring other data it has in hand, NOAA is demonstrating an unwillingness to do that very necessary due diligence. We remain, in essence, where we were when I sat in that stuffy room in 2005, listening to reports of fabricated survey information by people who were too lazy to properly collect the data. We are no better off than we were in 2006, when the National Academies said NOAA's MRFSS efforts had to be overhauled.
We are no better off than we were in 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010, when debates raged in states all along the coastline about saltwater fishing licenses, causing rifts among the very groups that should have been standing shoulder to shoulder demanding better from the bureaucracy.
I'd say I'm shocked and appalled, but after 10 years of watching how NOAA operates, I'm not surprised. Disgusted, yes.
There has to be some accountability.
It's easy to simply say, "oh, but Congress didn't give them this, Congress didn't give them that."
Congress isn't the one preventing NOAA Fisheries from using the data it has in hand.
We were promised better data — and, by extension — better regulations, if only we joined the saltwater registry, if only states passed saltwater licenses, if only we were patient with the bureaucrats.
Ten years, and nothing substantial has happened. The estimates of fishing effort continue to be questionable. Fishermen and fishing communities continue to suffer.
If only NOAA would stop dragging its feet and start using the information we've provided. If only we started getting the real, quality data that we were promised.
If only they really gave a damn.
Karen Wall Subscribe