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While corporate attorneys and environmentalists say the new MRIP review gives NMFS a clean bill of health, scientists believe anglers may still experience a sick, uneasy feeling.
By Jim Hutchinson, Jr.
The National Marine Fisheries Service timeline indicates a review of final estimates and stock assessment scenarios using the Fishing Effort Survey will take place this spring, with full implementation of the completed project set for January of 2018.

According to the nation's preeminent source of objective scientific analysis and advice, the federal government’s recreational fishing harvest surveys have been gradually improving over the past 10 years.

However, the same independent scientific panel also finds the survey methodology itself may still be “incompatible” with the needs of in-season management of our recreational fisheries.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (Academy) recently completed their analysis of the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP) and found “significant improvements in gathering information through redesigned surveys, strengthening the quality of data.”

While “many of the major recommendations from the 2006 report have been addressed, the Academy also found that some challenges remain,” going so far as to call for a full evaluation of the current MRIP design to see if it’s even compatible with in-season management of the recreational fishery.

The independent scientific committee that wrote the report found the methodologies in the current Fishing Effort Survey, such as an address-based mail survey, resolve many of the shortcomings associated with the random digit dialing approach used in previous phone surveys. To enhance the quality of this survey, the report also included several recommendations, like adding a specific question on fishing location, such as whether private or public-access sites are used.

MRIP uses surveys that collect data regarding anglers' fishing trips and the quantity and species of fish caught to determine overall angler harvest. By using statistical analysis, the data collected provides fishery scientists with catch estimates which are used to assess marine fish stocks and in making management decisions.

Over the past decade, NMFS has been working to retool the survey methodology in response to recommendations made in a previous Academy report, with specific changes required by Congress.

In 1979, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) initially started a survey program called the Marine Recreational Fisheries Statistics Survey (MRFSS) which the Academy found in 2006 to be “fatally flawed” in meeting its intended purpose. The process of redesigning the program and transitioning to the new MRIP process was a requirement laid out in the congressional reauthorization of the Magnuson Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act in 2006.

That same federal fisheries law – which is again up for reauthorization - also included new annual catch limit (ACL) requirements and punitive accountability measures (AM) when either the commercial or recreational sector failed to meet the ACL. While the Academy’s latest findings show that the overall “statistical soundness of the redesigned program” should lead to better estimates of fish caught, the independent board of scientists and researchers also found that statistical challenges still remain in the recreational fishery that need to be addressed.

“For example those related to missing data such as refusals to complete the interview during a survey, language barriers, or lack of response to the mail survey by some anglers,” the Academy wrote in their report, adding “Such missing values may affect estimates if the behavior of non-responding fishers is different from those who participate in the survey.”

The report further noted how communications with anglers about the role of the national program have not resolved the anglers' lack of confidence in the survey methodology. “The committee recommended that MRIP develop a national communications strategy involving state and federal partners to educate fishers and stakeholders on the role of MRIP,” the report stated.

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