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GIVING IT ANOTHER TRY

Editorial

    The clock keeps ticking. Another year gone. Another year of crushing fisheries management decisions.
    It was supposed to be better by now. We were supposed to have recreational fisheries managed by real data, not partial peeks into the activity.
    In the Gulf of Mexico, the ongoing fisheries management mess created by the 2007 reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Management Act nearly shut down the red snapper recreational fishery altogether. If not for some fancy footwork and a major compromise, recreational fishermen would have had just three days to catch red snapper. Once a six-month fishery, it would have been reduced to 72 hours.
    There’s no coincidence that this downward spiral on access to the fishery began 10 years ago. And fishing groups have been fighting ever since to get some balance back into the law.
    In July, a bipartisan group of senators and members of the House introduced matching bills in the two chambers to again attempt to address the issues that are strangling recreational fisheries all over the country. In addition to the red snapper fiasco, the Atlantic coast is under a cobia fishing closure, and several inshore species continue to be battlegrounds.
    The Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2017 aims to address a number of critical flaws by allowing alternative management tools, reexamining fisheries allocations, and improving recreational data collection, for starters.
    A recent review of the Marine Recreational Information Program received positive comments from the National Academies, which said the program had made good strides in better capturing information on fishing effort, something identified as a key flaw in the old Marine Recreational Fisheries Statistics Survey.
    But in looking at NOAA’s information on MRIP — where it is and where it’s headed – some issues that have been cited repeatedly remain. There were promises to include vessel trip reports — fishing logs that charter and headboat captains are required to keep — in the calculations. That still is not being done, according to NOAA, except on a “random sampling basis.” In a document on its strategic plan for the next five years and its data priorities, getting that data included is a key element of the plan moving forward.
    That should have been done sooner, but there’s a big reason it wasn’t: Money.
    That will be the one flaw facing proposed changes to Magnuson, too. While it will sound good on paper, anything that requires funding more than likely will languish. That’s why it’s taken more than 10 years to make any progress on MRIP, and despite NOAA’s self-proclaimed glowing review, it’s a safe bet that pretty much any captain who fishing regularly will tell you the MRIP effort estimates continue to fail to reflect reality.
    The plan to include the logbook data, for example, lays out extensive needs to manage a switch to electronic reporting that will be manageable for all involved. That means the development of software applications that work from a variety of devices.
    There’s also an effort underway to switch from dialing random phone numbers in coastal zones to speak with individual anglers and estimate effort based on how many trips they’ve taken to a mail-based survey.
    Called the Fishing Effort Survey, it will collect data number of fishing trips) by shore and private/rental boat anglers on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. The move to FES began in 2015 and the mail-based survey is being compared against the phone-based survey.
    “The new mail-based FES uses angler license and registration information as one way to identify and contact anglers (supplemented with data from the U.S. Postal Service, which includes virtually all U.S. households),” the NOAA website says. “In 2018, the FES will replace the CHTS, which uses random-digit dialing of homes in coastal counties to contact anglers. The three-year side-by-side testing is being used because the two methods are so different, and produce different results.”
    NOAA said Early studies indicated, and subsequent follow-up has confirmed, that on average fishing effort estimates for the FES will be higher — and in some cases substantially higher — than the CHTS estimates.
    “This results from doing a better job of measuring fishing activity, rather than to a sudden rise in fishing effort. The calibration model will enable us to adjust historic effort estimates to accurately compare them with new estimates from the FES,” NOAA says.
    “It is important to note that higher effort numbers do not necessarily mean that there are fewer fish to catch. It is equally important to note that NOAA Fisheries will not use estimates from the FES until the agency can make accurate comparisons to past estimates and determine how to apply them to stock assessments and annual catch limits.”
    Measuring effort accurately is one thing. Will the average success of that effort be accurately reflected as well? That was long a concern under the old system.
    All of the changes that NOAA is talking about require money. And money for fisheries management isn’t necessarily a guarantee. The initial budget figures released by the Trump administration included a significant cut to NOAA’s budget.
    Fisheries management is data-intensive and there’s ongoing research needed. Trump’s budget proposes to cut NOAA’s research budget by a fifth. Without money, that research doesn’t happen. That’s why you’ve seen fishing groups band together in the past to try to address data issues. Those issues play a tremendous role in the mess we are in.
    The Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2017 is important. The fact that so many fishing and boating organizations support it is tremendously important. But like every fisheries issue, it will face opposition. A lot of it.
    We need to get the law fixed. But introducing the bill is just the start of a long road we haven’t been able to travel in 10 years. Here’s hoping progress can be made this time around. There’s too many jobs and livelihoods depending on it




Karen Wall

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