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IMPROVED, BUT STILL ESSENTIALLY "FLAWED"

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.
IMPROVED, BUT STILL ESSENTIALLY
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.

30 YEARS AND COUNTING
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.%page_break%

One of the major changes in MRIP over MRFSS is through survey distribution. In previous years, anglers might expect a random phone call at home by government contractors hired to cold-call household landlines using contacts in coastal phone books; today, that information is now being done through mail surveys to random households, in part using the federal angler registry database, but also those same phone books.

Mike Leonard, Conservation Director for the American Sportfishing Association (ASA) said the shift to “snail mail” can help improve the accuracy of catch estimates, but said anglers will still be left with a system incapable of providing information nearly as frequently or accurately as commercial-fishing harvest data, or to the degree necessary to meet current statutory requirements.

“No matter how many incremental improvements are made to MRIP, a huge gap will still exist between what management expects and what MRIP is capable of producing in terms of timeliness and accuracy,” Leonard said, adding “That needs to be addressed through a combination of rethinking management goals and exploring fundamentally different ways of collecting angler harvest data.”

Leonard pointed out the specific conclusion made by the Academy on page 84 of their report referencing how the management landscape has changed significantly with the Magnuson Stevens reauthorization mandating strict catch limits for all managed species. “The implementation of annual catch limits together with accountability measures that are enforced if the catch limits are exceeded has created additional tension in many fisheries, but particularly in recreational fisheries,” the Academy report stated.

“Concerns from analysts, managers and stakeholders over the use of data from MRIP in estimating both catch limits and in determining whether they have been exceeded have been expressed,” the report noted.

WHO’S ACCOUNTABLE NOW?
In the summer flounder fishery, NMFS is requiring a 30% harvest reduction across the board in both the recreational and commercial fishing sectors; however, based on ACL and AM measures required under Magnuson, an 11% overage in the MRIP estimates for 2016 essentially requires that a pound-for-pound payback overage be made by anglers in 2017. Representatives of the fishing industry and the Academy scientists themselves seem to be in agreement on this particular disconnect between the MRIP survey and what’s expected by law.

“There's a fundamental issue of whether MRIP is capable achieving the purpose for which it’s being used, which is to manage recreational fishing to a hard catch limit in real time,” Leonard said, adding “While the report didn't come to a conclusion on that, likely because it was outside the scope of the project, it did raise the question.”

In their final recommendation, the Academy recommended evaluating whether the design of MRIP for the purposes of stock assessment and determining management reference points is even compatible with the needs of in-season management of annual catch limits. “If these needs are incompatible, the evaluation should determine an alternative method for in-season management,” the report stated.

Leonard said he believes a full evaluation of this issue would almost certainly conclude what anglers have long known - the inability of MRIP to allow for in-season adjustments exposes one of the core flaws of the federal saltwater-fisheries-management system.

John Depersenaire, research scientist at the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA) said the newest Academy report also fails to reference a key finding from the initial 2006 report, that the MRFSS-style survey methodology isn’t capable of quota monitoring decisions in the recreational sector. “I still contend that MRIP should still not be used for enforcing the ACL requirements,” Depersenaire noted.

RFA’s executive director Jim Donofrio said the only way to substantiate the latest review and eliminate confusion is through a full congressional hearing, which he hopes to see convened in early 2017 to specifically address the Academy’s findings.

“As soon as the Trump administration is in and Congress is squared away for 2017, we’re going to ask for a full hearing, same as we did in 2006 when Congressman Saxton was chair of the fisheries subcommittee,” said Donofrio, adding that he plans to reach out to the Chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), as well as key members of the House Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans.

“We in the recreational community are being hurt most by the data, so we really need to get to the bottom of this, and get it fixed,” Donofrio added.



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